A Taste of What’s To Come: Preparing Students for College Success

“You’re getting a taste of what’s to come – the work, what teachers expect of you, and the amount of dedication and study you have to put into your work.”

That’s how Yolanda Bueso, a sophomore at Grace King High School in Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish Public School System (JPPSS), described her experience this year in Advanced Placement English Language and Composition.

Yolanda is one of several hundred students who are benefiting from a partnership between JPPSS and Mass Insight Education focused on expanding the AP programs at Grace King and Fisher Middle-High School. In the first year of the program, enrollment in AP math, science and English courses at the two schools increased by just over 300 students.

The program isn’t just about increasing enrollment, however. It’s also about ensuring that all of those students are successful in their AP courses – and that’s where Saturday Study Sessions come in. At Saturday Study Sessions, students attend a series of workshops taught by expert instructors selected by Mass Insight that explore in further depth topics the students are covering in their AP courses. Over the course of the school year, three Saturday sessions are held in each subject covered the program (math, science and English) – resulting in 15 additional hours of instruction for students who attend all three.

Mass Insight’s latest publication, “Extended Learning at Saturday Study Sessions: Students and teachers in Jefferson Parish commit to learning,” focuses on these Saturday sessions and how they, and the broader AP program, are putting JPPSS students on a path to college success.

Click here for a previous post on JPPSS.

News You Should Know: March Round-Up

Beginning in April 2014, we are jumpstarting our blog with a new schedule featuring a post every Tuesday.  At the beginning of each month, we will highlight education news stories from the previous month that you may have missed. Throughout the remainder of the month, we will showcase new Mass Insight Education publications and other key news stories.  We hope you enjoy the changes to our blog!


March News Round-Up

  • Don’t you forget about me. When it comes to school turnaround, there is one very important stakeholder that is often forgotten about: the community.  Last month, the U.S. Department of Education released case studies and tools relating to turnaround community engagement.  Check it out here!
  • Before you go on summer break… Students across the country will be field testing the PARCC Common Core assessments this spring.  Rather than seeking to get a sneak peek at student performance, the field test is more intended to serve as a test run: do schools have the right staffing in place? The right technology? A schedule without kinks? Do students understand the technology?
  • Still not good enough. New data from an exam administered in 28 OECD countries suggests that while American students are on par with some developed countries in their problem-solving skills, they still lag behind many European and Asian nations.
  • This shouldn’t be new to you. Unless you avoided the news and social media last month, you’re aware of the changes to the SAT, which will launch in Spring 2016.  The new test reverts back to the 1600 point scale, and the content will change to focus more on the language and skills students will require in college courses and the workforce.  The essay section will also become optional.
  • FAF-what?  Are students in your community aware of the benefits of filling out the FAFSA? Last month, government data revealed that 2 million students who did not file a FAFSA would have been eligible  for the needs-based Pell Grant toward college admissions fees.

Know what you have

After our last 6+ inch snowfall, I saw a neighbor of mine cleaning off her car with her jacket sleeves.  I offered her my car ice scraper, and she declined, saying she had one somewhere in her car but didn’t know where, and she was fine just continuing on the way she was.

This past summer, we released a publication called The Bold and the Bureaucrat: The Top Ten State Education Agency Levers for School Turnaround. In our and our partners’ work with SEAs relating to turnaround, we have found that there often are power levers available to states through law or policy that could be used to better support school turnaround efforts that state turnaround offices either didn’t know existed, or aren’t sure how to use.  Paul Hill at CRPE wrote, reaffirming our findings, that “[states] don’t use a good number of the powers they have,” continuing on to say that “many states treat school districts as if they were constitutionally established branches of government rather than (as is the case) creatures built at the state’s discretion.”

Hill’s final recommendations go beyond our recommendations, in that he calls for a whole new system for the state education agency to follow, but the resulting call for action is clear: understand the resources you have, and how to use them, and maybe the state can be more effective in supporting school turnaround.

New Twitter Handle: @MassInsightEdu

Do you follow us on Twitter? Make sure to use our new Twitter handle, @MassInsightEdu!

Be challenged

“I have yet to find any schools making more progress by challenging their students less.”

That’s the closing line on Jay Mathews’ piece last week that challenges schools to in turn challenge their average and below-average students. Encourage all students to enroll in an AP course and show them that someone believes they are capable of taking and even passing an AP exam for college credit.  Changing school culture to encourage students to challenge themselves, and placing them in a classroom led by a teacher who presents them with a hard topic and believes that they can come through it, can have surprisingly positive results on student achievement.

If your students think school is easy, then you’re doing something wrong.

Read more about AP.

Checking AP off the list

Earlier this month, College Board released the 10th Annual AP Report to the Nation.  Overall, it was good news: the total number of students taking an AP exam almost doubled over the past decade, and the number of low-income students taking the exams almost quadrupled in the same time period.  By the numbers, this sounds great!  However, on deeper examination we see that there is still a big problem our high schools are facing: an equity problem.  Low-income students (defined for data’s sake as students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) are not enrolling in AP courses (never mind taking AP exams) at the same rate as their higher-income peers.

On page 27 of the report, College Board provides the reader with a chart of the states and a slot for a checkmark to designate whether a state has eliminated the equity gap. Guess what? Not one state is checked off.  This data, buried toward the back of the report, should serve as a call to action for schools, partner organizations, and states to continue to provide low-income students with the same opportunities and support as their higher-income peers.

College Board 10th Annual AP Report to the Nation

(source: College Board 10th Annual AP Report to the Nation)

Our Mass Insight Education AP program has made strides in this area: in 2012 and 2013, schools enrolled in our program represented approximately 22% of the state’s low-income 11th and 12th grade enrollment.  Of those students, 37%  achieved a 3, 4, or 5 on their AP exams.  Initiatives such as ours, which focuses on providing all students the opportunity to enroll in AP, could have a major impact on closing the AP equity gap moving forward. In fact, African-American students in schools partnered in our program pass AP exams at the same rate that African-American students take AP exams in comparison schools.

If enough states, districts, and partner organizations can see the value in AP for all as a part of a multipronged approach to school improvement, perhaps in one of the annual reports in the near future we’ll see a few checkmarks in the table above.

The State Development Network: A year in review

In this post, Alison Segal and Larry Stanton (Senior Field Consultant at Mass Insight Education) reflect on the past two years of Mass Insight’s State Development Network.


Mass Insight began working with state education agencies (SEAs) on school turnaround in 2011, hosting occasional conference calls with interested SEA turnaround leaders. In 2012, we formalized our work with SEAs with the creation of the State Development Network for School Turnaround (SDN).  The first two SDN cohorts were joined by a total of 12 different states and included convenings, publications, webinars and on-site diagnostic reviews to the states.

As we complete SDN 2.0 and plan for 2014’s SDN 3.0, we have identified five lessons that we learned in our work with SEAs on school turnaround.

Lessons for SEAs:

1.            Use the power available

SEAs need to be clear about where they have leverage, and actually push on those levers.  Although most day-to-day work on school turnaround is conducted at the school and district levels, most SEAs have the power to allocate resources, establish goals, evaluate success, and determine consequences for school turnaround. As a first step, SEAs need to understand the powers that they have. The SDN publication, The Bold and the Bureaucrat: The Top Ten State Education Agency Levers for School Turnaround prompts a review of the powers available to an SEA.  The next step is for the SEA to organize their work to leverage the powers available.  Finally, SEAs can develop plans to obtain new powers that would advance turnaround in their states.

2.            Be clear about what you’re doing (and not doing)

Over the past two years we’ve seen most of the SEA turnaround offices we work with go through substantial leadership and staff turnover.  These changes make it difficult to sustain focus absent clear turnaround goals and strategies endorsed by the state commissioner and board. While it is probably unrealistic to expect turnaround offices to be exempt from the staff churn that afflicts SEAs, it is not unrealistic to expect state commissioners and boards to establish goals and strategies for turnaround that can be sustained through staff transitions.  Ideally, turnaround goals and strategies should be co-owned by state and local advocacy groups that provide the SEA with political support and hold the SEA accountable for implementing the turnaround strategy with fidelity. The SDN publication, Setting the Bar for School Turnaround: How Ambitious Public Goals Can Drive School Turnaround describes how SEAs can establish and report on turnaround goals.

3.            Recognize that we’re all in this together

Although turnaround challenges vary from state to state, too often we focus on the differences between states rather than the similarities.  The SDN has tried to identify a set of challenges and opportunities that are shared across states to encourage development of a common SEA turnaround vocabulary.  We’ve also facilitated cross-state learning by making connections between states.  For SDN 3.0, we’re formalizing this collaboration model. Each state will identify 2 or 3 priorities that they will work with MIE and other states to accomplish. This approach leverages power in numbers, and creates a learning community with a focus on sharing lessons learned and building useful connections among states.

Lessons for Mass Insight (or others helping SEAs):

4.            You’ll learn more on the ground 

For SDN 2.0 membership in late 2012, the SDN added an on-site diagnostic review that included interviews with SEA leadership and turnaround staff, district and turnaround school leaders and local advocates and stakeholders as well as a review of turnaround school performance.  The diagnostic reviews provided SDN staff with an opportunity to meet SEA turnaround teams on their turf and see their day-to-day challenges and opportunities.  In addition to providing recommendations to each SEA, the diagnostic visits informed the selection of topics for SDN convenings and publications.

5.            Balance practice and policy

The SDN aspires to impact SEA turnaround practice and policy, but in fact most SEA participants in our convenings are more involved in practice than policy. We have found that participants are most engaged in discussions of how they can improve the work they do with districts and schools (e.g., improving district monitoring protocols) and less engaged in more theoretical discussions about possible changes in policy (e.g., creation of autonomous clusters of turnaround schools).  Rather than abandon discussions of possible policy changes, this year we formalized a team lead role. Team leads participate in monthly steering committee calls to discuss SDN priorities and plan and reflect on convenings.  We also have occasional conversations with each team lead to identify opportunities to impact state turnaround policy, and offer individualized support based on state undertakings.

The evolution of the SDN has been a learning experience for Mass Insight, and has formed many valuable connections among state turnaround leaders in our SEA cohorts.  The partnerships Mass Insight fosters with other organizations through the SDN also serves to benefit the states involved, and create a stronger community around education, specifically around turnaround.

As we continue facilitating this network of SEAs, we aim to continue reflecting on what we have learned, and hope that in doing so, others may take our own lessons learned and put them into practice.             

Setting the Bar for School Turnaround

As we close out the year, it seems timely to introduce our latest publication out of the State Development Network (SDN), Setting the Bar for School Turnaround: How ambitious, public goals can drive school turnaround.

As you may remember from our Bold and the Bureaucrat report, we identified ten “power levers” that many state education agencies (SEAs) have authority over but do not use to increase the pressure on a turnaround’s outcome as being a positive one.  Another way that SEAs can pull a turnaround lever is by setting public goals specific to turnaround, and releasing public reports illustrating progress toward those goals.  Our newest report out of the SDN clarifies the most useful metrics that a state can use to report on, and makes simple comparisons to show the importance of 1) setting a grand public goal (e.g. when President Kennedy, fifty-some years ago, declared that we will go to the moon), and 2) tracking progress and finding small wins along the way (e.g. when a cursed baseball team, such as the Cubs, judges progress not by the number of World Series trophies, but by the statistics for each game won).

Read the publication, or join the discussion below.

Can’t say it enough: Collaboration is key

Five years ago, a Mass Insight Education publication entitled The Turnaround Challenge inspired a group of educators in DC to come together to better support their schools and students in an initiative dubbed DC Collaborative for Change (DC3).  Today, nine DC public schools are engaged in the group, which is essentially a professional learning community, focusing on learning from local stakeholders, sharing best practices, and leveraging strengths across the schools.

Last week, DC3 member Dana Nerenberg wrote about this grassroots collaboration, highlighting the inspiration that The Turnaround Challenge provided, namely in the concept that true change is found through altering the systems surrounding the current traditional urban district.  Further, providing schools with a certain level of autonomy supplies leaders with the conditions needed for true change, and building capacity through clusters of schools and increased support from local community partnerships can benefit students and teachers alike.  The collaboration that DC3 has created across the 9 schools allows educators to share and pool resources and learn from one another in a way that they cannot replicate as individual, siloed schools.

Nerenberg credits the heightened sense of morale among educators involved and increased retention rates of high-achieving teachers to the DC3 collaboration.  Just another reminder of how critical both collaboration and capacity-building are to the turnaround world.

Restructuring Urban Systems from the School Up

In light of the elections that took place across the country last week, former Boston superintendent Michael Contompasis penned an op-ed to the Boston Globe, advising the new mayor that the way to “fix what’s broken is not to apply a Band-Aid to a system that’s not working for all students. It is to reimagine the system itself.”

We all agree that current urban school systems are broken. Fewer than 25% of urban students meet national standards on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and even highly touted districts such as Boston and New York have barely improved in the past decade.  The newly released national NAEP data  showed no significant change for the achievement gaps among ethnicities or gender in test scores for 4th and 8th graders in reading or math. If we want to build the schools of the future, why are we working with the systems of the past?

Our publication, Smart Districts: Call to Action, encourages new thinking around education systems, settling on a “third way” between the traditional urban public school system and the charter system.  This theory leverages key components of the charter world-feeder patterns and increased autonomy for school leaders-and builds capacity by shifting some responsibilities from the central office to a Lead Partner working with a cluster of schools. 

We hope our Smart District publication, along with Mr. Contompasis’ op-ed challenge, will continue to advance discussion of a new framework that solves some of the problems that exist in both primary strategies now being used: central office command-and-control (decades of failure) and total decentralization (too small to scale).  Let us know what you think. And please join us in pushing state and district policymakers to do what it takes to make this vision a reality.  


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