The Women's World Cup edition

Raising college completion rates, faking high school graduation numbers, and an archeological study on Sesame Street.

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine, "Early Childhood Education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street," National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 21229 (June 2015).

Mike Petrilli:             Hello, this is your host Mike Petrilli, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, here at the Education Gadfly Show, and online at Now, please join me welcoming my co-host the Abby Wambach of education reform, Michelle Learner.

Michelle:                   Thank you, Mike. Actually, welcome to the show yourself. It's been a while.

Mike Petrilli:             It has been a while. We have noticed some trends since I've been gone, Michelle. You know what's happened?

Michelle:                   The listener-ship has gone up.

Mike Petrilli:             It's gone through the roof. Oh my goodness. Hey people out there, welcome to the show. We've got people who are listening in the last few weeks, we think for the first time because we went from a couple hundred people pretty consistently over the last 10 years, suddenly we're over a thousand. Loving it. We think it might be this whole serial phenomenon.

Michelle:                   I think it's the serial thing, but it's also the great people we have come to speak on the podcast.

Mike Petrilli:             We do provide great content. Hey, welcome welcome people, glad you're listening. Tell all your friends and family and colleagues that they should do the same. We hear from people that they love, especially, working out to the Education Gadfly Show.

Michelle:                   I don't understand how people can run to podcasts.

Mike Petrilli:             Because nothing gets you more pumped up than wonky conversations about testing and accountability, right?

Michelle:                   Exactly, exactly.

Mike Petrilli:             Especially for those hard hills, you know? All right. Well, it is nice to be back. I've been on the road a bunch doing some hard ship duty that I have to do as president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. A lot of travel involved.

Michelle:                   We send you all over.

Mike Petrilli:             Tough places that I have to go to, but I'm back. I'm excited to talk about the weeks' news. Dominique let's play Pardon the Gadfly.

Dominique:               Mike, you wrote a piece this week that argues that better K-12 education is the key to better college completion rates. Please explain.

Mike Petrilli:             Well, I'd be happy to. Thank you. It's been interesting in the last few years, there's been a real push from some foundations, some government officials, to start focusing more and more on higher education reform. It's understandable. You say, look we know we still have these big disparities that happen in higher education, that even well-prepared low-income kids, for example, are much less likely to graduate college than affluent kids that come in with much lower levels of preparation. So you say, okay let's address those barriers, let's fix them. Totally down with that.

                                    But, if you look at the data over time, which I did this week, what you find is we now have a college graduation rate that is almost exactly the same as our college readiness rate. In both cases, about 35% of kids on the front end come into college from high school well prepared. This is according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading and math. Young people in their 20's, we're getting about 35% of them through college. I don't think it's a coincidence that those numbers are the same. If we want to increase those numbers, we're talking about 4-year degrees here, if we want more people graduating with Bachelor's degrees, I don't think we're going to see much progress until we boost the number of kids coming into college that are ready for college.

Michelle:                   Surprisingly, the president of a K-12 education think tank thinks that the focus should be on the K-12 world. Is that what I'm hearing here?

Mike Petrilli:             Yes, that's exactly right. The Gates Foundation, stop wasting your money on higher education. Lumina, the rest of you. K-12 is where it's at people.

Michelle:                   Now, we can't say for sure that it's the same kids that come in college-ready are the ones that are graduating, but I do think it's a statistic that's too close, that it has to be a-

Mike Petrilli:             Right. Let's be careful. I think that's important. We talk a lot in our world now about college readiness and the idea that we can measure whether somebody's ready for college. I think that we can get pretty close to that, but no doubt, there are kids who don't score well on these tests and are still able to do well in college. Some of whom even can pass out of remedial education and do fine. Other kids who do pass these tests and still flounder. Now that may be because, of course, you need more than just strong math and reading skills to do well at college. The non-cognitive stuff, grit, all that other stuff that matters. Not to mention the barriers that low-income kids face if they're also working, if they also have challenges going on outside of school, all that kind of stuff matters.

                                    My sense is, we are not going to make much progress if we have a strategy that tries to take kids who come into college not ready, especially if they're well below college ready, and try to figure out how to get them across the finish line. Much better strategy is to significantly increase the number of kids who come out of high school well prepared, and that brings you to the broader education reform agenda that we're working on. Common core, high-quality charter schools, on and on and on.

Michelle:                   I like it.

Mike Petrilli:             Okie dokie. Topic number 2.

Dominique:               NPR published a story this week that throws water on America's 81% high school graduation rate. Thoughts?

Mike Petrilli:             Michelle, you're not a cynical person, but what do you think?

Michelle:                   I'm definitely a cynical person. Have we met?

Mike Petrilli:             Oh okay.

Michelle:                   No, I go through my optimism.

Mike Petrilli:             This is why Michelle gets along with all those journalists that we hang out with. The graduation rate has gone up dramatically in the last decade or so, and now NPR comes along saying, well, wait just a minute. Are we so sure this is for real?

Michelle:                   I think this is really great reporting because I think this is what a lot of ed reformers have been saying. Yes, it's great that the graduation rate is going up, but I think a lot of question, well, how is it going up? Is it fudging the numbers, is it pushing kids through? Our last discussion surely suggests that. Or are we actually making progress? I think it's a little bit of all 3.

                                    NPR notes 3 things. Stepping in early, which is exactly what we want to do. The stories talk about having college coaches, getting kids ready, but even doing this earlier. They even site pre-k as when we should step in to make sure kids are on time. Then there's a lot of credit recovery things going on. Sarah Carr last year did a great piece ... Was it for Education Next?

Mike Petrilli:             It was indeed.

Michelle:                   On the credit recovery mess, and fudging numbers. I think in Camden, almost 40% of kids win graduation on appeal. This is not our criminal justice system. You should earn graduation.

Mike Petrilli:             Right. These are kids who did not meet the requirements, and in high school, that's not an exit exam place. We're just talking about, did you pass enough courses to get the credits that you need for high school. They did not, and there's some appeal process where they're able to get a diploma anyway.

Michelle:                   You should not get your diploma on a technicality.

Mike Petrilli:             My sense, Michelle, is that we are very confused right now about high school. I think there's a clear agenda right now for, say pre-k through 8th grade. It's based around getting kids ready to these common core standards, improving teacher quality, raising the standards for teachers in the front end, giving them better feedback as they go along. You can picture what this looks like. I just think when we get to high schools, there is just mass confusion about what we want our high schools to achieve, what do we do about kids who come in to high school way behind, what does it mean to graduate, should that be set at the same level as college readiness, or not.

                                    I feel like there is a need to really get some people thinking about how do we get greater clarity on the mission of the American high school right now. I think that there's a lot of confusion, and there's a lot of dishonesty. We want to say that we want everybody in an academic track, so we put everybody in a "academic track" and then you do a study and you find out those courses aren't what they really say they are. We want to boost our graduation rates, and so we find a way to boost graduation rates. I think we're just ... How is this helping kids to give them diplomas that they didn't actually earn?

Michelle:                   This is the same as requiring algebra for all kids, and then you go into these algebra classes, and it's not algebra that's being taught. It's basic arithmetic. I think what you're laying out sounds like CTE.

Mike Petrilli:             Well that could be part-

Michelle:                   That could be part of the solution. There's a great study out last year from the University of Chicago that looked at students in the 9th grade who saw that they were falling behind, and they did interventions to ensure that these kids were getting on track. We saw that the kids were going through to the end of high school. I think there are things we can do, but I agree, some clarity is needed. We should be honest because we're only setting up these kids for not a great life if we tell them they're prepared and then they get either to college, or to their first job and they're just not prepared.

Mike Petrilli:             Well, maybe when they don't get that first job they can apply for a waiver. Okay. Dominique, topic number 3.

Dominique:               An Ohio school district's new technology-based learning model has lowered cost and empowered students. Does this show that meaningful reform is possible within traditional districts?

Mike Petrilli:             There was this great Wall Street Journal article this week on the Reynoldsburg School District in Ohio. We have actually featured it in a Fordham report a few years ago from our Fordham, Ohio office. Very innovative, entering suburban district doing all kinds of stuff: online learning, blended learning, inner-district choice, competency-based learning. You name it, they're trying it. They seem to be successful in getting more kids from outside the district to come in and enroll, and good things are happening.

Michelle:                   Absolutely. Bravo to Carrie Porter for this great story. It's super exciting-

Mike Petrilli:             Is this just a platform for you to kiss up to the journalists?

Michelle:                   I don't kiss up to any journalist.

Mike Petrilli:             I just wanted to put that out there.

Michelle:                   I think even for skeptics of this blended learning approach, like me, I think it's really interesting to see. What the story did point out was there's a large teacher turnover here, so not everything isEl. What do you say about that?

Mike Petrilli:             Yeah, that's right. In Cleveland they had a strike not that long ago about their teacher force was not happy with some of this stuff. The big question to me is ... I have to admit, I'm very skeptical that you're going to see school districts make meaningful reforms that are going to stick and be sustained over time. It's just really hard, I think mostly because of the politics and the governance, but maybe it is possible at least in these mid-size districts in places where there's ... This is a place where the demographics are changing dramatically, where there's been some stable leadership in place. Maybe it is possible.

                                    My own sense has always been that if you really want breakthrough results, breakthrough change, really innovative stuff, it's going to happen in the charter model just because you have this opportunity to start fresh, you have a better governance model, there's fewer barriers. Maybe Reynoldsburg shows that if all the right conditions come together, you can do it in the district setting as well.

Michelle:                   Hopefully. We'll see how long it sustains.

Mike Petrilli:             Yeah. Exactly. Notice I said maybe.

Michelle:                   Yes.

Mike Petrilli:             I said maybe.

Michelle:                   Not the optimist today, Mike.

Mike Petrilli:             I said maybe, baby. Okay. That is all the time we've got. Thank you Dominique. Thank you Michelle for playing Pardon the Gadfly. Now it's time for everybody's favorite. I assume it's still everybody's favorite.

Michelle:                   It is.

Mike Petrilli:             I've been away for a few weeks, but still everybody's favorite. Amber's Research Minute. Amber, welcome back to the show.

Amber:                       Thank you, Mike.

Mike Petrilli:             You excited about the women's World Cup, Amber?

Amber:                       I'm not keeping up with it. Sorry. Oh, it's terrible.

Michelle:                   Well, the women's World Cup is better than the men's World Cup because in the U.S., the women have a chance of winning for the U.S.

Mike Petrilli:             This is very true. I saw something the other day that said if they don't take the next men's World Cup away from Russia, we should boycott the World Cup. I'm thinking, that doesn't really hurt us that badly.

Amber:                       Save us the embarrassment. Is the hope there's a girl named Hope on the team?

Michelle:                   Yeah. She's the one that's run into some issues.

Amber:                       Oh, okay. What's her last name again?

Michelle:                   Solo.

Amber:                       See? I knew something.

Michelle:                   She has some domestic abuse as the abuser issues. Yeah. I think there's questions of whether she should be allowed to play.

Amber:                       Got it. I just remember she was the one, at the last one that we won, that was on her knees with her hands up in the air and made all the big newspapers.

Michelle:                   I think ... was that her? Or someone else? I don't remember.

Mike Petrilli:             She was the one that ripped off her shirt. That was somebody else, right?

Amber:                       I think so ...

Mike Petrilli:             That was a long time ago.

Amber:                       That's my extent of World Cup, sorry.

Mike Petrilli:             All right. Well, next time we try to chat about sports we'll try to pick something we know something about.

Michelle:                   Maybe we should go to a topic we are more knowledgeable about.

Mike Petrilli:             Yes. Including education research. What've you got for us?

Amber:                       That's right. We got a new study. It's called "Early Childhood Education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street." We're going to learn about Sesame Street today. It examines the impact of access, which is important, to Sesame Street on various short and long-term academic and labor market outcomes. Analysts focused on cohorts of children born between 1959 and 1968, which means they would've entered first grade around 1965 until 1974, just before and after Sesame Street was introduced to the country in 1969 .

Mike Petrilli:             Fascinating.

Amber:                       They examined the progress of students who would've been 6 or older and already in elementary school at the time of the first airing of the show, and those 5 and below who would've been just exposed to the program during their preschool years. So those are your groups. This is what's kind of interesting. They make use of a natural variation in exposure to the program by calculating, by county, the share of tv households who were able to receive a signal over which Sesame Street was broadcast. You've got some natural variation there. In short, Sesame Street was often broadcast on ultra-high frequency channels, and many tv sets at the time could not receive this particular ... it's called a UHF channel. They estimate that about two-thirds of the population lived in areas where Sesame Street could actually be received on their tvs.

                                    They used consensus data mainly as their main measure. They find that kids with access to Sesame Street, not measuring actual viewing, because they don't have a measure for that, but access to Sesame Street were more likely to proceed through school in the grade appropriate for their age. In other words, they weren't held back. That's their main measure they could figure out. Those in good reception areas are 1.5 to 2 percentage points more likely to be on grade level, and in disadvantaged ares, that rises a little bit to about 3 percentage points. Okay. More specifically, white and black children who were 5 or younger when Sesame Street was introduced and who lived in these strong reception areas were 8 to 14%, respectively, less likely to be below the grade level appropriate for their age. That was their key finding. Okay?

                                    However, they found no compelling changes in high school graduation, drop-out rates, or college attendance rates for Sesame Street.

Michelle:                   I'm shocked.

Amber:                       Nor, labor market outcomes like hourly wages, employment status, and poverty status. They looked at all these things.

Mike Petrilli:             They really thought we were going to find-

Amber:                       They did. Apparently, they did.

Mike Petrilli:             Okay.

Amber:                       They tried ... This is a hard study, right, it's really complicated. They tried to control for all these other things that may have been going on, too, like food stamps was introduced. That time, apparently, we started increasing expenditures on Head Start, which could've been another thing going on. They tried to control for all these various demographics, not only of the kids, but of the county, because it was a county unit. It was a tough thing to do. I think it was creative, but in the end, they comment that Sesame Street, because it was the first electronic transmission of educational material, should be classified as our very first MOOC. Our massive open online course. They said it was fairly successful in their opinion, at least in terms of this very specific short-term outcome.

Mike Petrilli:             Fascinating. As people who follow research, this is mostly interesting in terms of this methodology, right?

Amber:                       Yes.

Mike Petrilli:             It almost seems like these people are archaeologists.

Amber:                       They were looking at these very old resources on channels, UHF and VH-

Michelle:                   Yeah, but from a research point of view, I don't know if creative is the adjective you want used.

Amber:                       Well when it appears in NBER, you kind of got to pay attention because somebody's really vetted this stuff, right? At the end of the day, right, it's like, what's the theory of change that you think ... wow, this would carry out to a labor market outcome? I got my first job thanks to Sesame Street.

Mike Petrilli:             I do think that well-designed children's television can have a big impact. I think there's been some other good studies about that over the years, and as a parent I'll say, my kids have certainly learned a whole lot from PBS Kids, and from other online resources. We've got our list of best television shows up on our website as well as our ... What do we call our-

Michelle:                   Education on Demand.

Mike Petrilli:             It used to be called Netflix Academy until we heard from the nice people at Netflix about using their trademark.

Michelle:                   Yes. To cease and desist immediately.

Mike Petrilli:             Exactly. Which we did. This stuff can matter. The trick is, as a parent now, there are so many choices out there, and it is hard when your kids figure out that, wait a minute, sure I like the PBS Kids stuff when I'm little, but then some friend of mine shows me that the Star Wars clone show, or the Rescue Bots-

Michelle:                   The less educational options?

Mike Petrilli:             The less educational options. Which of course are so much more fun to watch.

Michelle:                   Right, right.

Mike Petrilli:             Then you just feel like, oh my gosh, now we're just having a fight over this again.

Amber:                       Right. I remember as a kid looking at Sesame Street, and I don't know about you guys, but Big Bird freaked me out. He just was kind of scary.

Michelle:                   I was afraid of Cookie Monster, and still am, for the record.

Mike Petrilli:             And still are ... All right. We're good. Thank you, Amber, for that creative look at-

Amber:                       Yes. It was creative. NBER doesn't often get creative, so hey it was-

Mike Petrilli:             Props to them.

Amber:                       Yes.

Mike Petrilli:             All right. Thank you. Thanks Amber. Thanks Michelle. That is all the time we've got this week. Until next week.

Michelle:                   I'm Michelle Learner.

Mike Petrilli:             And I'm Mike Petrilli, at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, signing off.