The Mad Men edition

Opting out, EngageNY's ELA curriculum, career and technical education, cell phones in school, and community college support programs.    

Amber's Research Minute


Alyssa:             Hello, this is your host, Alyssa Schwenk, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, here at the education gadfly show and online at Now, please join me in welcoming my co-host, the Roger Sterling of education reform, Robert Pondiscio.

Robert:            Oh! What does that possibly mean?

Alyssa:             I was going to call you the Don Draper of education reform ...

Robert:            And I was all ready to get offended.

Alyssa:             ... since "Mad Men" ended, but then I remembered that Mike has the fedora and Mike has the kind of '60s motif going on in his office.

Robert:            He's all about that "Mad Men" style.

Alyssa:             Mike is Don Draper.

Robert:            All right, so he's cold, calculating, an impostor. What's Roger Sterling?

Alyssa:             Roger Sterling is fun.

Robert:            Quick, facile, insubstantial fun?

Alyssa:             He's fun. He saves the firm at the end of season ... I can't get into it.

Robert:            Embarrassing. A horrible drunk.

Alyssa:             He's also a fun guy. He's very entertaining. He has the best one-liners. I think you have pretty good ones but ...

Robert:            You’re just calling me old, aren't you?

Alyssa:             I'm really not. You worked in the Time-Life Building ...

Robert:            I did, yeah.

Alyssa:             He worked in the Time-Life Building.

Robert:            All right, all right.

Alyssa:             I thought there was some basis for comparison.

Robert:            All right, all right. I choose not to be insulted, but this is not over.

Alyssa:             So I take you didn't like the way his storyline, no spoilers, ended on "Mad Men."

Robert:            I've got to be honest with you. I like "Mad Men." I'm one of these people who binge-watches, so I'm still only up to season 5. Now I feel like I've seen all of season six and seven because it's been in the news and whatnot.

Alyssa:             Yes.

Robert:            Exactly. But no, I still have a lot of "Mad Men" yet to watch. See me in about six months and we'll continue this conversation.

Alyssa:             We'll talk about that then, and for now we'll talk about education. Dominique, filling in for Ellen, question one.

Dominique:     Fordham just published a review on Engage New York's Common Core-aligned English/language arts curriculum, concluding that the materials are an important, if not exactly perfect, alternative to traditional textbooks. Thoughts?

Alyssa:             These curriculum, these standards have been the subject of much debate, particularly in your home state, New York.

Robert:            Mm-hmm (affirmative). Correct.

Alyssa:             We found that especially in K-8, the curriculum that was presented is generally pretty strong.

Robert:            Yeah, it's pretty good. I shouldn't say a lot of us, I'll speak for myself. One of the reasons I've been enthusiastic about Common Core from virtually the word "go," is not, frankly, because I love standards. As a teacher, I never once took down the New York State Standards to decide what I was going to teach today. That's what curriculum does. My assumption, my hope all along, has been that Common Core would create the conditions that would create, I don't want to call it a curricular renaissance, but just focus more attention on what teachers teach, what students learn, and that's curriculum.

                        I'll be honest and say I've been a little bit disappointed that that curricular renaissance has not exactly occurred.

Alyssa:             I like that term a lot.

Robert:            In order to be a renaissance, it would have had to have been a golden age of curriculum. It hasn't happened, so let me mix my metaphors. I was hoping that this would create a golden age of curriculum. Hasn't happened. Look, Engage New York is exactly what I think a lot of people, including myself, had hoped would happen, would be the impact of Common Core State Standards. Is Engage New York perfect? No, it's not. I have a personal bias here. The pre-K through 2 segment of the ELA is the core knowledge language arts program.

                        As people may know, I spent a lot of years working for Core Knowledge, so I'm not going to pretend to be a neutral observer about that. I'd like to see every child have that curriculum. Engage New York may be the first big hit, as it were, of Common Core. I've done a little bit of digging — I'll be writing about it later this week — it turns out that as many downloads have occurred from outside of New York State as within New York State, which is kind of interesting. So maybe these conditions that people are taking a good, hard luck at their ELA curricula, disappointed with what they have, looking for better, finding Engage New York. If this creates the conditions that lead to a more robust marketplace in curriculum, then that alone would make Common Core worth it.

Alyssa:             We found in our earlier report last year the Common Core, an early look at early implementers, that teachers were taking Engage New York materials, which were available then, and using them as a kind of touchstone.

Robert:            Yeah.

Alyssa:             They were using them as a resource to create their own curriculum. I think that's great. When I was teaching, I kind of existed in a curriculum vacuum. We didn't have a lot of curriculum.

Robert:            We all did.

Alyssa:             Just making a lot of stuff up as I went along. I was browsing and this is a really great, it's not perfect obviously, there are some improvements. I was reading particularly in the 9th through 12th grade curriculum some things that need to be rectified, but it's a good foundation for teachers to use.

Robert:            Sure, and our colleague Mike Petrilli is critical, and not unjustly so, that there's no full novels being taught at the high-school level. Yeah, fair point. My rejoinder to Mike was, "Look, I'm an early childhood, K-5 guy. If you don't get that piece right then excerpts or novels, either way it's more stuff kids can't read."

                        I'm pleased that there's now this free public resource that will hopefully help at the elementary school level. Teachers all across the country, not just in New York, learn what a good ELA curriculum looks like. We're off to the races.

Alyssa:             I think we are. Question 2, Dominique.

Dominique:     One of the arguments Robert Putnam makes in his new book, "Our Kids," is that we ought to rethink the idea that college is for everyone and encourage some people to instead opt for career and technical training. Do you agree?

Robert:            To recap, a Harvard professor believes that not everyone should go to college.

Alyssa:             Yes.

Robert:            I'm right about that?

Alyssa:             Yes.

Robert:            I don't want to be glib because I actually agree with this argument, but it is kind of fascinating that this ... And we do this here. We're as guilty of this at Fordham as Robert Putnam is. It's never folks who didn't go to college who say, "You know what, college is overrated."

Alyssa:             Yeah. I think I would say, "Yes, but ... " Yes, we do need these other pathways, but it needs to not be a second choice for the kids who aren't making it in K through 12. It shouldn't be a second choice and just the good path that the poor kids take. It needs to be a strong path that affluent kids can take. There needs to be strong academic options for kids who are not as affluent.

                        He also gets into in the book, which by the way I stole from your office ...

Robert:            So you're the one who has it.

Alyssa:             I don't know if you saw my note.

Robert:            Okay.

Alyssa:             I signed my name. I wasn't just going to leave it anonymous. I put my name on it.

Robert:            I need that copy back because Professor Putnam signed it for me, so that's now a valuable possession.

Alyssa:             You will get it back. But I was reading in his chapter about schooling just about ... And this is something we've talked about before. The need for integrated schools, socioeconomically diverse schools and the benefits of those. So I think, yes, I think we can implement career tracks, we can create really strong STEM tracks and attract kids from all across the economic spectrum, but we also really do need to try and figure out this integration thing, so that opportunity is not just concentrated in very wealthy districts.

Robert:            You just used the T word, Alyssa.

Alyssa:             Oh ...

Robert:            Track.

Alyssa:             Whoops, I did. Can we edit that out?

Robert:            I don't think you can. That's really the historical complaint here. Call it what you will, the vocational track, becomes the things that the low-income kids, the kids of color, get put into. That becomes destiny. Nobody wants that, but there are good historical reasons to oppose that, but then the case, I guess, that has to be made that we here have been making at Fordham, is there has to be multiple pathways to upward mobility.

Alyssa:             Yes, multiple viable pathways.

Robert:            Right. It's interesting that we here at Fordham and Professor Putnam see eye-to-eye in this, but we do.

Alyssa:             Yeah.

Robert:            I think he's right. The one issue I would take, and I wanted to find this quoted correctly. In "Our Kids," he writes about community colleges, for example, that they have real promise as a means of narrowing the opportunity gap, and then he writes, "To serve that role, they need more funding, improved student support services, better connections to local job markets and to four-year institutions and a lower drop-out rate." Yes, yes, yes! However, let's not lose sight of the fact that none of that happens unless we have a robust K-12 system that prepares kids to take advantage of these opportunities, whether they're vocational, whether they're college track, whether they're community college or junior college track.

Alyssa:             But how cool was that speech, or his talk, the other day?

Robert:            Yeah, yeah, yeah. He's an impressive man.

Alyssa:             It was a very nice talk. All right, question 3, Dominique.

Dominique:     A new study by an economist at the University of Texas at Austin found that banning cell phones in schools has the same benefits as extending the school year by five days. Is this a good idea?

Robert:            Extending the school year by five days?

Alyssa:             Five whole days.

Robert:            Heck no.

Alyssa:             All right, so this study has the economist ...

Robert:            It's almost June.

Alyssa:             The study is by an economist at UT Austin. They went to four districts, 91 schools, in England and noticed that, particularly for low-income, low-achieving students, banning cell phones led to students becoming four percentage points more likely to pass the test, so not much, but it's certainly a boost. They found that the effect was greatest among low-income students. Their conclusion was banning cell phones doesn't really affect the kids who are already doing well, but it is a great boost for the lower-achieving kids.

Robert:            This is not exactly that surprising. It's counter-intuitive insofar as there's this big, what do they call it, BYOD movement among some teachers.

Alyssa:             What?

Robert:            Bring your own device. You never heard of this?

Alyssa:             I can't say I have, no.

Robert:            Some teachers who are a little bit more fond of ed tech than I am are all about the BYOD movement so that we can rename that as "bring your own distraction."

Alyssa:             Right. I've been reading a lot about the effects of sugar on diets. This has a point, I promise.

Robert:            Can't wait.

Alyssa:             As I've gotten older, as I've learned how to fry an egg, which was something I learned last year and cook for myself and take on more responsibility for what I'm eating, I've become a lot more careful.

Robert:            Just last year?

Alyssa:             Yeah, don't tell my mom.

Robert:            Wow.

Alyssa:             Yeah. But sugar was one of those things where it's great in small doses, it's necessary and life-saving in some doses, but we haven't really evolved to manage the high quantities that most people consume. I kind of feel like ed tech and tech in general is the same way. See, I did have a point.

Robert:            You did. That was impressive.

Alyssa:             Thank you.

Robert:            I didn't know where that was going, but you brought it in for a landing.

Alyssa:             Brought it in home.

Robert:            Well done.

Alyssa:             Ed tech has this great possibility to really disrupt education and bring great things, but I don't think we're quite there yet. We haven't figured out how to harness. Until then, I'm all for banning cell phones in classrooms.

Robert:            New York City just rescinded their cell phone ban. They were banned, famously, under Bloomberg and Klein, and now kids can bring their cell phones to school but not to class.

Alyssa:             Right.

Robert:            That strikes me as a reasonable compromise.

Alyssa:             I think that's a good thing.

Robert:            If there are teachers out there who are real just ed tech enthusiasts and they can harness the power of this in a way that is not a distraction, then they should.

Alyssa:             And manage the classroom when all those kids have cell phones.

Robert:            Absolutely. But the idea that this is a panacea and let kids bring their cell phones and use them in class because it's a pocketful of knowledge, yeah, it's also a pocketful of distraction.

Alyssa:             Yeah. All right, well I think that's all the time we have today for pardon the gadfly. Up next, Amber's research minute.

                        And we're back with Amber's research minute. Welcome to the show, Amber.

Amber:            Thank you, Alyssa.

Alyssa:             We were just talking, and I know we're going to get to the study that you read this week, but we were just talking about a study on cell phones in school.

Amber:            Huh.

Alyssa:             And banning them seems to lead to an extra week of learning for some students.

Amber:            Really? I missed that study, I really did.

                        When I was teaching, there was not such a thing as cell phones yet.

Robert:            Oh now stop it. You're not as old as I am, and when I taught there were cell phones.

Amber:            But we had the beeper was around.

Robert:            Oh, God, the beeper.

Amber:            The beeper. Remember the beeper?

Robert:            Sure.

Alyssa:             No.

Robert:            Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Amber:            Some of the kids did have beepers.

Robert:            Yeah.

Amber:            There were like two or three kids in the room that had beepers and it used to drive me nuts because they're checking that thing every two seconds. I can't imagine having a cell phone.

Alyssa:             I had, when I was teaching kindergarten, I had a kindergartner come to school and his mom had given him a dead cell phone as a toy, but told him it was a real cell phone. So he kept thinking that he was supposed to be taking calls and I'm like, "Nobody is calling you. This is a toy and now it's my toy because it is distracting me so badly."

                        He ended up in dramatic play for the rest of the year.

Amber:            That makes sense. Anyway, I think it makes great sense that they could be distracted by their cell phones.

Alyssa:             Shocker.

Robert:            Kids can be distracted by a lot less than that.

Amber:            Yes.

Alyssa:             All right, what do you have for us today?

Amber:            I have a new study from MDRC that evaluates the impact over three years of a support program for low-income community college students in New York who are taking remedial courses. This is kind of interesting.

Robert:            That's most of them.

Amber:            That's a lot of them, yes. It was developed by the City University of New York. The program is called Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP. I love when they have this nice, little ...

Robert:            Very clever.

Amber:            ASAP includes several components. You have to require the kids to enroll full-time, which is important. They have to participate in a non-credit seminar that involves academic planning and goal-setting. It's sort of like study skills.

Robert:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amber:            They get tutoring, which is great. They get comprehensive and dedicated student advising, almost one-on-one dedicated student advising. They get career and employment services, tuition waivers — big deal — free transportation vouchers, and free textbooks.

Alyssa:             Sounds like a good deal.

Robert:            Do they get somebody to do their work for them?

Amber:            I know, seriously. This a little footnote, but it was important. The free transportation was contingent upon them participating in all this stuff, which apparently was a pretty big motivator for these kids, to be able to get to and from where they need to do all this stuff.

Alyssa:             Right.

Robert:            Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amber:            Eligible students had to meet income eligibility requirements, and they have to take one to two remedial courses, among other stuff. So three of CUNY's largest community colleges participated. Because there's apparently a ton of these, like 24.

Robert:            Oh yeah. They're huge.

Amber:            So roughly 900 students were randomly assigned to the treatment group and they had the opportunity to participate in ASAP, or the control group, which received business as usual college services.

                        I saw this study, by the way, because it came up as a what works clearinghouse rockstar that met their criteria with no reservations.

Alyssa:             MDRC, they're pretty strong.

Amber:            The results, which is what we care about. The ASAP earned on average nine more credits than the control group. Further, the program nearly doubled the graduation rate, with 40 percent of the ASAP group receiving a degree, compared to 22 percent of the control group.

Robert:            Hmm.

Amber:            They were also more likely to transfer to a four-year college, 25 percent versus 17 percent for the control group. As for the expense, which is what I was searching for the entire report — like how much does all this stuff cost?

Robert:            Sounds expensive.

Amber:            Analysts estimate that ASAP cost roughly $16,000 more per student than what CUNY currently spends on their business-as-usual college services. Yet, they say the cost per degree was lower because ASAP generated so many more graduates.

Robert:            Right.

Amber:            Over three years than did the usual college services.

Robert:            Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Amber:            This is sort of a common theme. I think we're beginning to build a literature around what it takes to get these non-college-ready kids college-ready, and it's pretty intense.

Robert:            Absolutely. And not just at two-year colleges, four-year colleges as well.

Amber:            So I started thinking MDRC made a big deal out of this study. It's got the highest impact on any other study we've done on this topic, which is all well and good. It's got this randomized control design, but at the end of the day, a full 60 percent of the kids who were involved in the ASAP did not attain a degree in three years. Let's not forget that.

Robert:            Well that's one way to put it. Another is that it doubled the likelihood that it would.

Amber:            It's glass-half-full, glass-half-empty around here.

Robert:            Sure, sure, sure.

Amber:            I was both full and then I got empty.

Robert:            That's fair, but here's the math that I can't do in my head. President Obama has proposed a $60 billion program to make community college essentially free and make it an entitlement.

Amber:            Yes.

Robert:            I wonder what the cost would be to scale this up.

Amber:            Right.

Robert:            Compared to that because this sounds like it would be a lot more effective. I don't hear that many arguments that cost is a barrier to community college, but once they get there, all these other bad things happen that prevent them from matriculating or staying in school, getting a degree, transferring to a four-year institution, etc., etc. This sounds a lot more promising.

Amber:            Yes. It does, but wow, it's intense, right?

Robert:            Sure.

Amber:            It's intense. Advising and mentoring is so huge for these kids. They had to meet at least twice a month with their mentor adviser, and they're poking and prodding them, helping them with college/career choices, saying, "There's more for you. There's a four-year out there." There's a lot of psychological, I think, component to this too.

Robert:            Right.

Amber:            When I first saw the study, I thought, 'Well, maybe they're actually retooling the remedial courses and it's a curricular invention,' but it's not at all. They didn't do anything to the remedial. They were just doing the wrap-around services.

Robert:            This is a way to keep kids attached to the institution when all is said and done. So-called it's no excuses community college, that's basically what we do in charter schools is we just don't let kids fall away for any of the reasons that kids normally fall away.

Amber:            Yeah, yeah, that's right. If Mike were here, he'd say, "Maybe we need to think about another path for those 60 percent of kids that didn't make it," right? It's the discussion we're having about college for all, and community college, is it right for all kids?

Robert:            Right.

Amber:            Mike's big thing is, "Is this the new cash cow for community colleges?"

Robert:            No, it's the old cash cow.

Amber:            It's the old cash cow.

Robert:            That's right, right.

Amber:            What we accuse ed schools of being, right, for universities.

Robert:            Right. Right. What would Robert Putnam think?

Alyssa:             I think Robert Putnam would like it quite a bit. He was, when he spoke, very much into beyond just the school, the economic effects, the family effects and bringing all of that to the table to help kids. When I look at the list of things that it provides, whether that be transportation or advising, those are things that, if you are from middle class or upper-middle class or affluent families ...

Robert:            It's baked into your life.

Alyssa:             Right. You just have that. I went to a four-year school where I lived on the campus. I didn't need transportation because I was there. I met with my adviser at least once a month to make sure I was staying on track. All of that stuff is baked in, so if we can find a way to provide that at scale and it doubles graduation rate?

Robert:            This is, again, more math than I can do in my head, but you have to take what is the payback on doubling the graduation rate in community college in terms of life-term earnings, etc., etc. Then you'd know if you have something.

Amber:            Right. And that's what they said in here because you're getting so many more graduates per set of services. I mean, that's one interesting way to think about it. In terms of life-term earnings, that's a whole 'nother gauge.

Robert:            Here's one thing I think we can all agree on, which is nobody can be happy with the condition of community colleges right now.

Amber:            Yeah. 12 percent was the last graduation rate estimate?

Robert:            It's appalling. I don't think it's that low, but it's below 20.

Amber:            I heard 14 at one point, 12-14, so I guess maybe it's gotten better.

Robert:            It's not good. Yep.

Alyssa:             All right, well, fascinating study, thanks so much, Amber.

Amber:            You're welcome.

Alyssa:             I think that's all the time we have for this week's gadfly show. Till next week.

Robert:            I'm Roger Sterling. Wait ...

Alyssa:             Robert Pondiscio.

Robert:            That's me.

Alyssa:             And I'm Alyssa Schwenk for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, signing off.