What You Need to Know About New Rules to Protect Students from Poor-Performing Career College Programs

Cross-posted from the White House blog.

Yesterday, the Administration announced new regulations to protect students at career colleges from ending up with student loan debt that they cannot pay. The new rules will ensure that career colleges improve outcomes for students — or risk losing access to federal student aid.

To qualify for federal student aid, the law requires that most for-profit programs and certificate programs at private non-profit and public institutions prepare students for “gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” The new rules are part of President Obama’s commitment to help reduce the burden faced by student loan borrowers and make postsecondary education more affordable and accessible to American families.

HOW ARE CERTAIN PROGRAMS LEAVING BORROWERS WITH THE BURDEN OF STUDENT LOAN DEBT?

Too often, students at career colleges — including thousands of veterans — are charged excessive costs, but don’t get the education they paid for. Instead, students in many of these programs are provided with poor quality training, often for low-wage jobs or in occupations where there are simply no job opportunities. They frequently find themselves with large amounts of debt and, too often, end up in default. In many cases, students are drawn into these programs with confusing or misleading information. The situation for students at for-profit institutions is particularly troubling:

  • Students who attend a two-year for-profit institution costs a student four times as much as attending a community college.
  • Eighty-eight percent of associate degree graduates from for-profit institutions had student debt, while only 40 percent of associate degree recipients from community colleges had any student debt.
  • Students at for-profit institutions represent only about 11 percent of the total higher education population but receive 19 percent of all federal loans and make up 44 percent of all loan defaulters.

HOW WILL THE NEW RULE HELP IMPROVE OUTCOMES FOR STUDENTS?

The Department of Education estimates that about 1,400 programs serving 840,000 students — of whom 99 percent are at for-profit institutions — would not pass the new accountability standards. All programs will have the opportunity to make immediate changes that could help them avoid sanctions, but if these programs do not improve, they will ultimately become ineligible for federal student aid — which often makes up nearly 90 percent of the revenue at for-profit institutions.

HOW WILL THE FINAL RULE IMPROVE ACCOUNTABILITY AND TRANSPARENCY?

The rule also provides useful information for all students and consumers by requiring institutions to provide important information about their programs, like what their former students are earning, their success at graduating, and the amount of debt they accumulated.

DOES THE NEW RULE ONLY APPLY TO FOR-PROFIT COLLEGES?

The final rule apply to all sectors of higher education. In order to receive federal student aid, the law requires that most for-profit programs, regardless of credential level, and most non-degree programs at non-profit and public institutions, including community colleges, prepare students for “gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” The new rule sets the standards for “gainful employment” programs to remain eligible to accept federal student aid.

So, to maintain federal student aid eligibility, gainful employment programs will be required to meet minimum standards for debt vs. earnings for their graduates. A program would be considered to lead to gainful employment if the estimated annual loan payment of a typical graduate does not exceed 20 percent of his or her discretionary income or 8 percent of his or her total earnings. Programs that exceed these levels would be at risk of losing their ability to participate in taxpayer-funded federal student aid programs.

HOW MANY INSTITUTIONS WILL BE AFFECTED BY THE NEW RULES?

The new rule is significantly stronger than the 2011 regulation, and followed an extensive rulemaking process that involved public hearings, negotiations and nearly 95,000 public comments. The new rule is tougher than the Department of Education’s 2011 rules because they set a higher passing requirement and lay out a shorter path to ineligibility for the poorest-performing programs. In 2012, the Department estimated that 193 programs would not have passed the previous regulations; with respect to these new rules, based on available data, the Department estimates that about 1,400 programs would not pass the accountability metric.

WHEN DO THE NEW REGULATIONS GO INTO EFFECT?

The rule announced today will become effective on July 1, 2015. Institutions will have the opportunity to make immediate changes that will improve their programs and avoid ineligibility. The first several years will include a transition period that will take into account any immediate steps by institutions to reduce costs and debt.

Stay informed on the Obama Administration’s commitment to college affordability by signing up for White House education updates here.

Cecilia Muñoz is Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council.

The 5 “Qs” of Public Service Loan Forgiveness

#StudentLoanForgiveness. It’s a hashtag now, so you’ll all pay attention, right? Everyone wants their student loans forgiven. The perception is that very few qualify for any forgiveness programs. But did you know that there is one broad, employment-based forgiveness program for federal student loans? Most people don’t, or misunderstand how it works. Let me break down some key points of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program to help you figure out if you could qualify.

10.31 How to Determine if You Qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Can you check the all the boxes?

[ 1 ] Work in “Qualifying Employment”

First, you need to work in “qualifying” employment; that is, you must work in “public service.” But what does that mean? Everyone seems to have a different definition. Ours is based on who employs you, not what you do for your employer. The following types of employers qualify:

  • Governmental organizations – Federal, state, local, Tribal
  • Not-for-profit organization that is tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code
  • A not-for-profit organization that provides some specific public services, such as public education, law enforcement, public health, or legal services

The following types of employers do not qualify:

  • Labor unions
  • Partisan political organizations
  • For-profit organizations

[ 2 ] “Qualifying Employment Status”

If you work at one of these types of organizations—great! That’s the most difficult criteria to meet. Next, you need to work there in a “qualifying” employment status, which means that you must be a full-time employee of the organization. Full time, for our purposes, generally means that you meet your employer’s definition of full time or work at least 30 hours per week, whichever is greater.

[ 3 ] Have a “Qualifying Loan”

A “qualifying” loan is a Direct Loan. It’s that simple. Of course, it’s the government, so nothing is actually that simple. You see, there are (or were) three big federal student loan programs:

  • The Direct Loan Program, which is now the biggest program,
  • The Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program, which is what many students borrowed from until mid-2010, and
  • The Federal Perkins Loan Program, which is a relatively small program.

You may have loans from just one of these programs, or you may have borrowed from all three. If you’re not sure which loan program you borrowed from, I can’t blame you—I had 20 separate loans by the time that I finished graduate school! You can use the National Student Loan Data System to determine which program you borrowed from. Here’s a tip from me to you: basically, if you see “Direct” in the loan type name, it’s a Direct Loan. Otherwise, it’s not.

Don’t have a Direct Loan? Don’t despair! You can consolidate your other federal student loans into a Direct Consolidation Loan and qualify that way. Not having a Direct Loan is the biggest reason that borrowers who are seeking Public Service Loan Forgiveness aren’t on the right track, so be sure that all of your loans that you want forgiven are Direct Loans before you proceed to the next step. If you do need to consolidate, be sure to check the box in the application that says that you’re consolidating for the purposes of loan forgiveness. It will make your life easier, I promise.

[ 4 ] Have a “Qualifying Repayment Plan”

Next, you need a “qualifying” repayment plan. All of the “income-driven repayment plans” are qualifying plans for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. So is the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan, but if you’re on that repayment plan, you should switch to an income-driven repayment plan straight away, or you will have a drastically lower loan balance left to be forgiven after you meet all of the criteria.

If you’re consolidating your loans, you can apply for an income-driven repayment plan in the consolidation application, but if you don’t, you will be placed on the Standard Repayment Plan for Direct Consolidation Loans, which is almost never a qualifying repayment plan for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. If you already have Direct Loans, you can submit an income-driven repayment plan application on StudentLoans.gov.

[ 5 ] Make 120 “Qualifying Payments”

Lastly, you need to make “qualifying” payments—120 of them. A qualifying payment is exactly what you would expect it to be. You get a bill. It has an “amount due” and it has a “due date”. Make the payment in that amount by the due date (or up to 15 days after), and the payment is a “qualifying payment”. If you make a payment when you’re not required to—say, because, you’re in a deferment or you paid your student loan early—then that doesn’t count. But if you reliably make your payment every month for 10 years, you should be okay. The best way to ensure that your payments qualify is to sign up for automatic payments with your loan servicer.

Note that these payments do not need to be consecutive. So, if you had made 10 qualifying payments, and then stop for a period of time (say, you go on a deferment), then start making qualifying payments again, you don’t start over; instead, you pick up where you left off.

And, I’m sorry to have to mention a seemingly arbitrary date, but a payment only qualifies if it was made after October 1, 2007, so nobody can qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness until 2017 at the earliest.

Ok, so do I qualify?

Now that you have the details, let me explain how all of the criteria work together. For any payment to count toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness, you need to meet all of the criteria when you make each payment. Stated differently, you need to be working for a qualifying employer on a full-time basis when you make a qualifying payment under a qualifying repayment plan on a Direct Loan. When you break these criteria down separately, it seems simpler. It’s when you try to pack it into one sentence that it seems overwhelming.

As much as I’d like to think that all of you now have a perfect understanding of this program and how it works, I know all of you are thinking—“okay, but do I qualify?” Here’s how you find out. Download this form. Fill it out. Have your employer certify it. Send it to FedLoan Servicing (one of our federal student loan servicers), queue up How I Met Your Mother on Netflix, and wait for an answer. FedLoan Servicing will do the following:

  • Check whether you have any qualifying loans.
  • If you have qualifying loans, validate that your employment qualifies. If none of your loans qualify, they’ll tell you so.
  • If your employment qualifies, they will send you a letter confirming that your employment qualifies. Then, any of your federally held loans that are not serviced by FedLoan Servicing will be transferred to them so that we can keep better track of your loans and payments for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. If your employment doesn’t qualify, they’ll tell you so.
  • After your loans are transferred, they will match up the dates of employment on the form that you submitted to the payments you made during that time and determine how many qualifying payments you made. You’ll receive a letter with a count of qualifying payments and an anticipated forgiveness date (which assumes that all your future payments also qualify).

It’s after you get this payment count back that you’ll know whether you’re on the right track. So, it really is a good idea to submit this form early and often. We recommend that you submit the form once per year or when you change jobs. The beauty of submitting these forms early and on an ongoing basis is that it means that you won’t have to submit 10 years’ worth of them when you ultimately want to apply for forgiveness. It also means that when you apply for forgiveness, that you’ll be able to do so with confidence that you qualify for it.

One more piece of good news: Public Service Loan Forgiveness is not considered income by the IRS. That means that it’s tax-free.

Ian Foss has worked as a Program Specialist for the Department of Education since 2010. He’s scheduled to be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness on October 6, 2021, if all goes according to plan.

Doing it for Me: A U.S. Department of Education Documentary Screening and Panel Discussion on Personal Struggle and Supporting Youth

School dropouts are saddled with so many preconceptions. The popular narrative is that they are either lazy, they give up, or they simply don’t want to go to school.

To many students who decide to leave middle or high school, these stereotypes couldn’t be further from the truth.

Recently, the student-produced documentary Doing it for Me was screened at ED’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. The audience was given an intimate look into the personal story of D.C. high school dropout Precious Lambert, and learned how she got back on track and helped her two best friends – Victoria Williams and Jessica Greene – navigate tough life-altering decisions.

Before an audience of ED staff and policy makers, panelists gave examples of how both the arts and the concern of teachers for their students can promote successful learning. (Photo credit: Meridian Hill Pictures)

Before an audience of ED staff and policy makers, panelists gave examples of how both the arts and the concern of teachers for their students can promote successful learning. (Photo credit: Meridian Hill Pictures)

Following the screening, Leah Edwards, the film’s co-director; Jessica Greene, who is featured in the film; Maureen Dwyer, executive director of Sitar Arts Center; and former high school dropout and current alternative school student Cristian A. Garcia Olivera, participated in the panel discussion. Before an audience of ED staff and policy makers, they gave examples of how both the arts and the concern of teachers for their students can promote a successful learning environment.

Despite being in the top 2 percent of her high school class, Jessica lacked relationships with her teachers. “It was up to me to drive myself,” she explained. She believed there was a major problem in her education due to poor communication between students and teachers, and discovered that the only way to get back on track was to take personal responsibility.

Jessica found an outlet and a path to success at Sitar Arts Center, a local organization that advances life skills for underserved youth through holistic arts programs. Though she often denied her feelings at home, Jessica said, “At Sitar I could be me; I could let loose.”

Through the work of Sitar Arts Center, Maureen was able to show how the arts are essential to critical and creative thinking — and how arts education can help students at risk of dropping out persevere beyond school. This aligns with the National Endowment for the Arts research that show students with low socioeconomic status perform better when they are engaged in the arts, and are two times more likely to enroll in four-year colleges.

Christian said that when teachers show an interest in their students it can make a huge impact on their lives. He dropped out of his traditional school and is currently (and happily) enrolled in an alternative school. “At alternative schools the teachers are really nice. The classes are really small, with only 20 kids per class, and . . . teachers teach you in a way to get to know you better,” he said.

Getting a second chance can make all the difference in the world for students like Precious, Victoria, Jessica and Christian. An audience member summed up his understanding of the film’s powerful message: “If you’ve made the bad choice, you can still fix it.”

Watch the entire discussion on ED Stream.

This event was a part of the ED Youth Voices Policy Briefing Session program, aimed at providing U.S. Department of Education staff and stakeholders with student perspectives on educational policy issues.

Samuel Ryan is a special assistant and youth liaison in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.

Investing in Evidence: Funding Game-Changing Evaluations

What major evaluations could have the biggest impact on preschool through Grade 12 (P-12) education—providing information that could drive significant improvement in the ways that teachers, principals, and policymakers provide education to American students?

The U.S. Department of Education is committed to helping schools, districts, states, and the federal government use funds as wisely as possible – which means in ways that yield better results for students. As part of that, we are working to build evidence of effective practice – and one of the ways we do that is through conducting evaluations that offer useful guidance for future investments. We are looking to the field to help figure out what evaluations are most useful.

The Congressionally enacted Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 allows the Department to strengthen the impact of our evaluation work by pooling resources across Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) programs. This makes it possible to fund rigorous evaluations of individual Federal education programs that currently lack sufficient evaluation dollars, and to evaluate the impact of various strategies that cut across a wide range of ESEA programs.

Specifically, we are asking your help to identify what the most pressing education policy and/or practice questions are and how answering them could provide needed information to educators, parents and local, state, and federal governments to enable significant improvements in education. Our goal is to support the development of findings that have the rigor and power to inform significant improvements in how schools, districts, states, and the federal government provide services to students. We are seeking public input on the following questions:

  1. What are the most critical P-12 questions that are still unanswered?
  2. How could answering these questions provide information that could be used by schools, districts, and States to improve student outcomes for all students and/or particular groups of students?
  3. What type of study could answer these questions and produce findings that are reliable and generalizable?
  4. What implications would these findings have for existing practices, policies, and federal programs? Please mention the specific practices, policies, and programs by name if possible.

Submissions can be posted either publicly through the comment section of the blog or by email to evaluationideas@ed.gov by Monday, December 1, 2014. Any evaluations funded with pooled money should be relevant to P-12 programs authorized under ESEA. All opinions, ideas, suggestions and comments are considered informal input. As such, the Department will not provide formal responses to ideas submitted and submissions may or may not be reflected in the final decisions. If including additional information beyond the above four questions, this information should be accessible to all individuals, including individuals with disabilities, and should not include links to advertisements or endorsements. Any advertisements and/or endorsements will be deleted before submissions are posted.

Emily Anthony is senior policy advisor in the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education.

A Deeper Shade of Green: A District Sustainability Plan Encompasses Facilities, Operations, and Instruction

Note: The U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools program recognizes schools, districts and postsecondary institutions that are 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching environmental education. To share innovative practices in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.

Making the decision to “go green” is an important step toward building 21st-century school systems in this country. And, as our decades-long experience in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) shows, it takes commitment, collaboration, culture change, and comprehensive planning to turn a deeper shade of green.

School Energy and Recycling Teams (SERTs) are comprised of students, teachers, and administrators at each school. (Photo credit: Montgomery County Public Schools)

School Energy and Recycling Teams (SERTs) are comprised of students, teachers, and administrators at each school. (Photo credit: Montgomery County Public Schools)

MCPS’ commitment to good environmental stewardship spans more than 35 years. We began laying the foundation for sustainability in the 1980s and 1990s through dedicated energy and utilities management, including automation of building systems, lighting retrofits, and energy efficient design in new constructions. Today, we have a district-wide sustainability plan championed by the superintendent of schools and it’s implemented at every level of our system.

We’re working hard. We’re getting results. And, we’re getting noticed.

We’re proud that MCPS has received the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools District Sustainability Award and four school awards since 2012. These honors are the result of tremendous collaboration among many offices and departments, including Facilities, Materials Management, Transportation, Information Management, and the Office of Curriculum and Instruction.

We’re integrating operations with instruction in several ways:

  • Building and grounds provide a safe and healthy environment for students;
  • Resource-efficient and renewable energy technologies offer authentic learning; and
  • Conservation practices help the school system save money on operations.

Our district-wide focus on sustainability creates opportunities to involve students in conservation practices as they learn the why and how of those practices.

We have found that a key to the cultural change required for a sustainable school district is getting buy-in from the school community: convincing the staff and students at every school that conservation pays off – quite literally.

A major step forward in this effort was the formation of School Energy and Recycling Teams (SERTs), which are comprised of students, teachers, and administrators at each school. Empowered with quarterly energy use reports to monitor usage and recycling scores, school teams create and implement plans for continued improvement. District-wide savings generated by improved energy and waste management practices are returned to schools, creating further incentives to reduce their utility bills.

Our SERT program unleashes creativity, enthusiasm, and resourcefulness on the part of students and staff. It complements the MCPS K-12 environmental literacy curriculum by providing practical stewardship projects, like those showcased during this month’s Green Strides Best Practices Tour of Francis Scott Key Middle School, one of 14 LEED Gold Certified schools in MCPS. During the tour, Francis Scott Key students spoke about their role in recycling materials at their school and described how they monitor lighting and computer status in classrooms after school. The school features geothermal heating and cooling, a 100 KW solar photovoltaic system, occupancy sensors, and a state-of-the-art storm water management system, all of which provide authentic lessons and project opportunities for teachers and students to explore, research, and analyze.

In MCPS, our Environmental Sustainability Management Plan outlines our goals, strategies, actions, and measurements for a whole array of sustainability areas including energy, transportation, information technology, recycling, and cleaning. Perhaps most importantly, it includes a strong focus on environmental literacy. The plan is a working document that will evolve as new sustainable technologies and practices are invented, and it will continue to help students become better environmental stewards of the world they will inherit.

Laurie Jenkins is Supervisor of Environmental Education Programs and Sean Gallagher is Assistant Director of Facilities Management at Montgomery County Public Schools.

Know It 2 Own It: National Disability Employment Month

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month!

In 1945, Congress passed a law declaring the first week in October as National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week. In 1962, the word ‘physically’ was removed to acknowledge the employment needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities. In 1988, Congress expanded the observance to a month and changed its title.

This year’s theme, “Expect, Employ, Empower,” is a reminder that every American has a right to dignity, respect, and a shot at success in the workplace. The Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees equal opportunity for everyone who is willing to work hard; and, over the past 25 years, Americans living with disabilities have achieved amazing things. Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of students living with disabilities still do not go on to experience steady, gainful employment. Transition planning and related programs can give young people with disabilities the opportunity, skills, and experience needed to make that move from student to employee.

A good example of this type of programming is Project SEARCH. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) partnered with the District of Columbia Public Schools and the District’s Department on Disability Services to host a Project SEARCH class. The Project SEARCH High School Transition Program is a unique, business-led, one-year, school-to-work program that takes place entirely at the workplace. Total workplace immersion facilitates a seamless combination of classroom instruction, career exploration, and hands-on training through worksite rotations. Now in its fifth year at ED, almost 50 students have graduated from the program. Many have gone on to find competitive employment.   These young adults are living examples of the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act and, as a result, are able to lead independent lives.

To learn more about Project SEARCH at the Department of Education, check out this month’s “Know It 2 Own It” video:

“Know It 2 Own It” is a campaign to encourage the general public to learn more about the disability rights movement and history that led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Please let us know how you are working to bring about positive change for individuals with disabilities in your community by sharing your story on social media with the hashtag #know2own.

Click here to view September’s “Know It 2 Own It” blog.

Alexis Perlmutter is a Special Assistant in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education.

Why I’m a Principal, Not a Statistic

Sharif El-Mekki

As October, National Principals Month, comes to an end, I cannot help but to reflect upon what led me into the principalship.

As a twenty-one year old African American male, I could have very easily become a statistic. Five months after graduating from IUP in rural Pennsylvania, I was shot and left for dead on a football field in Philadelphia.

Many people struggle to recover from such an experience and I am blessed to have a community that rallied around me and refused to let me succumb to the trauma that could have easily overwhelmed me. Instead, I was led to become a career changer, transitioning from counseling adjudicated youth to one of the most important careers in the world-being a principal.

As a teacher leader, my principal, Charles D’Alfonso, supported and encouraged me to take on the immense challenge of becoming a principal. He guided me, connected me with other mentors (like Yvonne Savior, who would serve as my new teacher coach and new principal coach years later), and provided various resources to spur my growth and success. And, although, I viewed myself as a leader of middle school students, my principal saw me as a leader of a school community.

Today, I make it part of my mission to encourage all my peers to mentor the brave, humble, and up-and-coming leaders in the principal pipeline. We need to do this to strengthen our profession and to ensure that there is a higher level of diversity in the principalship. By expanding leadership opportunities for women and minorities, we acknowledge the diversity of the students we serve. By harnessing the unique and life-impacting experiences and perceptions of culturally distinct principals, we will help to strengthen students’ outcomes – including and especially for the most vulnerable students in our communities. We will impact these students in ways that equip the next generation to master the incredible challenges and seize the incredible opportunities of our time.

It’s said Albert Einstein, the great scientist and philosopher, believed that one of the most powerful forces in the universe is the effect of compound interest in finance. I’m not sure if this attribution is true, but I do know that – like the power of earning “interest on interest,” – a great principal is a force that elevates, amplifies, and supports the great work of teachers and other school staff. And, that’s a mighty force! In my experience, it’s certainly one that moves mountains, uplifts communities, and accelerates student achievement.

My fellow Ambassadors Jill Levine and Rachel Skerritt and I have visited many cities and schools over the last several months, and we’ve spoken with over 875 principals. Research is clear about the tremendous lever that principals represent in school improvement efforts. Our conversations with our colleagues around the nation affirm the research below.

  • Principals’ actions have a have influence on why 70 percent of our best teachers leave the classroom
  • There are 90,000 principals, for 98,706 schools, employing 3 million teachers all of which serve the 55 million students in American public schools. On average, then, each principal impacts 611 students, each day, of each year, over their life at a school.
  • Principals account for 25 percent of a school’s total impact on student achievement, second only to teachers
  • Principals can have enormous impact on all students because principals ensure effective instruction year to year across the entire school

I am humbled and inspired daily by the work that we do and the impact that we have. As principals, we must continue to identify and develop those leaders in our buildings that can join us in this mission of the principalship – just as Charles D’Alfonso did twenty-two years ago.

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker Campus in Philadelphia, PA, and a 2013-15 Campus Principal Ambassador Fellow of the U.S. Department of Education. El-Mekki serves on Mayor Michael Nutter’s Commission on African American Males and is an America Achieves Fellow.

Highlighting Hispanic Education Year-Round

It’s the middle of October. The leaves are changing colors, baseball playoffs are under way, and Hispanic Heritage month – celebrated each year from September 15 to October 15 – just came to close. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the rich history and the centuries’-worth of contributions the Hispanic community – a diverse community with roots in Mexico, the Caribbean, Spain and Central and South America – has made to this country.

hispanic_ed

We first began celebrating Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968, and in 1988 the observance of Hispanic Heritage Month was enacted as law by the U.S. Congress. But the impact of this country’s Hispanic community has never been greater – and the importance of promoting success for Hispanic learners has never mattered more – than right now.

Today, Hispanics are the largest, youngest and fastest-growing minority group. Yet our college attainment rates are among the lowest. A college education continues to be the ticket to the middle class, and improving educational outcomes for the Hispanic community is vitally important for the common good. In America, we fall or rise together. The success of Hispanic students is directly tied to the success of our democracy, and our ability to compete in a global economy.

President Obama’s North Star Goal – that this country will again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world – depends on the success of every single student, whatever his or her background or circumstance. The President understands the crucial role of the Hispanic community and has continued to expand opportunities for them and all students. Whether it is our work through the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, the My Brother’s Keeper initiative or our support of Hispanic Serving institutions, this Department is committed to supporting this community and foster its educational success.

And we’ve seen encouraging signs of progress. The Hispanic high school dropout rate among 16-24 year olds fell from 28 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2011. Hispanic college enrollment has grown by more than 1.1. million students. In fact, college enrollment is up more for Hispanics than any other group. In 2012, the enrollment rate among Hispanics 18-24 years old was over 49 percent, up from 31 percent in 2002.

Still, there’s more we must do. As a country our high school graduation rate has reached an all-time high of 80 percent, but the rate for Hispanics still lags behind. In addition, African American and Hispanic students account for 40 percent of high school youth, yet make up just 25 percent of students taking advanced placement classes. Hispanic youth are also disproportionately represented in school-related arrests and disciplinary actions.

During the Department’s kick-off event for National Hispanic Heritage Month, Secretary Duncan said, “we need to make sure that the opportunities we offer every single child in this country are the opportunities we would want to offer our own children.”

This call to action comes at a watershed moment: for the first time in history, a majority of our nation’s public school students are minority students. Hispanic students alone make up 25 percent of all public school students in our schools.

Although Hispanic Heritage month is over, educating Hispanic learners – and all students – is important all year round. That’s the one sure way to reach our North Star goal, preserve the promise of the American Dream, and have the world’s best educated, most competitive workforce.

Robert Gomez is the director of higher education outreach at the U.S. Department of Education, and the son of Mexican immigrants.

Getting Assessment Right to Support Students, Educators and Families

The following op-ed piece by Secretary Duncan originally appeared in the Washington Post on Oct. 17. Secretary Duncan addressed the issue of getting assessment right in conjunction with an Oct. 15 official statement on the issue from President Obama, which is below.

As a parent, I want to know how my children are progressing in school each year. The more I know, the more I can help them build upon their strengths and interests and work on their weaknesses. The more I know, the better I can reinforce at home each night the hard work of their teachers during the school day.

The standardized tests my kids take are one gauge on the dashboard, but parents and educators know that tests are not the only indicator.

Last week, state education chiefs and district superintendents announced a plan to examine their assessment systems, ensure that assessments are high-quality and cut back testing that doesn’t meet that bar or is redundant. I welcome that important step.

Parents have a right to know how much their children are learning; teachers, schools and districts need to know how students are progressing; and policymakers must know where students are excelling, improving and struggling. A focus on measuring student learning has had real benefits, especially for our most vulnerable students, ensuring that they are being held to the same rigorous standards as their well-off peers and shining a light on achievement gaps.

However, many have expressed concern about low-quality and redundant tests. And in some places, tests — and preparation for them — dominate the calendar and culture of schools, causing undue stress.

Policymakers at every level bear responsibility here — and that includes me and my department. We will support state and district leaders in taking on this issue and provide technical assistance to those who seek it.

To be clear: I strongly believe in using high-quality assessments, including annual tests, as one (but only one) part of how adults improve instruction and hold themselves responsible for students’ progress. With my own kids, I know parent-teacher conferences, grades and other feedback round out the picture of whether they’re on track.

After a generation of watching other nations surpass ours educationally, the United States is putting the building blocks in place for schools that will once again lead the world. But for this effort to pay off, political leaders must be both strong and flexible in support of the nation’s educators.

America’s schools are changing because our world is changing. Success in today’s world requires critical thinking, adaptability, collaboration, problem solving and creativity — skills that go beyond the basics for which schools were designed in the past. But in recent decades, other countries have retooled their schools faster than we have.

We must do better. A great education isn’t just what every parent wants for his or her child; it’s a necessity for security in a globally competitive economy.

The good news is that, thanks to the hard work of educators, students and communities, America’s schools have made historic achievements in recent years. The U.S. high school graduation rate is at an all-time high, and the places most committed to bold change have made major progress on the nation’s report card. Since 2000, high school dropout rates have been cut in half for Hispanic students and more than a third for African Americans. College enrollment by black and Hispanic students has surged.

Perhaps even more important, educators are taking fundamental steps to help reclaim the United States’ leadership in education. Throughout the country, students are being taught to higher standards, by teachers empowered to be creative and to teach critical thinking skills. Last year, nearly 30 states, led by both Republicans and Democrats, increased funding for early learning.

Yet change this big is always hard, and political leaders — myself included — must provide support and make course corrections where needed. We are asking a great deal of our educators and students. Despite their hard work, and a growing embrace of many of these changes, one topic — standardized testing — sometimes diverts energy from this ambitious set of changes.

Fortunately, states and districts are taking on this challenge — including places such as Rhode Island and New York state; St. Paul, Minn.; Nashville; and the District, where leaders are already taking actions to limit testing. As they and others move forward, I look forward to highlighting progress others can learn from.

States are also leading the way on improving test quality, building assessments that move beyond bubble tests and measure critical thinking skills and writing; the Education Department has provided $360 million to two consortia of states to support that work. And to reduce stress on teachers during this year of transition, my department in August offered states new flexibility on connecting teacher evaluation to test results.

It’s vital that political leaders stand behind changes that will prepare our young people for success in the real world — changes that educators have worked so hard to get underway. We must also stand behind states that have increased standards for learning, and where adults are holding themselves responsible for the progress of all students. We must stand strong for responsible and equitable school funding. We must stand strong for making both preschool and college accessible to all.

And we must stand strong in the knowledge — not the belief but the knowledge — that great schools make a difference in the lives of all children.


Statement by the President on Local Education Leaders’ Action on Standardized Testing

Over the past five years, my Administration has worked with states to remove obstacles created by unworkable requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.  While the goals behind No Child Left Behind – promoting school accountability and closing the achievement gap – were admirable, in too many cases the law created conditions that failed to give our young people the fair shot at success they deserve. Too many states felt they had no choice but to lower their standards and emphasize punishing failure more than rewarding success. Too many teachers felt they had no choice but to teach to the test.

That’s why my Administration has given states that have set higher, more honest standards the flexibility to meet them.  In that spirit of flexibility, I welcome today’s announcement from the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools that state education chiefs and district superintendents will work together to cut back on unnecessary testing and test preparation, while promoting the smarter use of tests that measure real student learning.  I have directed Secretary Duncan to support states and school districts in the effort to improve assessment of student learning so that parents and teachers have the information they need, that classroom time is used wisely, and assessments are one part of fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools.

In the 21st century economy, a world-class education is more important than ever.  We should be preparing every child for success, because the countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.  Our nation’s schools are on the right track: Our high school graduation rate is at its highest in our history, the dropout rate is the lowest on record, and more of our young people are earning college degrees than ever before.  I’m determined to support our nation’s educators and families as they work to set high expectations for our students and for the schools in which they learn.

Community Colleges: Helping the U.S. Become “First in the World”

About three-quarters of college students in this country attend a community college or public university. President Obama understands the crucial role that community colleges play in helping students and our nation skill up for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. That’s why, in a recent speech on the economy, he called them “gateways to the middle class” – and it’s also why they’re a key part of his ambitious plan to improve higher education in America.

I recently had an opportunity to visit LaGuardia Community College in Long Island, New York where I was able to deliver some exciting news. During my visit, I announced that LaGuardia is among the 24 winners of our new $75 million First in the World (FITW) grant program, designed to fund innovation in higher education in ways that help keep the quality of a college education up, and the costs of a college education within reach, so more students of every background can fulfill their dreams of getting a degree.

As this award made clear, community colleges are often at the forefront of innovation. They also promote the dual goals of academics and career readiness. To learn more about how LaGuardia and countless other community colleges across the country support students, I sat down with a group of them to hear their stories.

Hassan Hasibul, a former cab driver and alumnus of LaGuardia’s Tech Internship Placement Program, explained how he learned to thrive in the workplace and gained new skills – skills that got him noticed. “My internship site hired me, and even gave me a portion of their stock,” he said.

One of the most exciting innovations at LaGuardia, which the FITW grant will support, is the development of an integrated set of tools to increase and enhance student success, including the use of ePortfolios, learning analytics, and outcome assessments. With the extra funding, LaGuardia will help students navigate their educational and career goals as they transfer to other institutions or join the workforce.

Faculty and staff aren’t the only ones helping students make academic and career decisions. Students are also helping other students plot out their courses and career trajectories. Jenny Perez shared her experience in helping her peers. “Even if they aren’t planning on transferring, I help them open their mind about the possibilities in their future,” she said.

For Enes “Malik” Akdemir, who came to the U.S. at age 18, without money or relatives, the LaGuardia faculty and students have become a huge, supportive family. After a year and a half in intense English immersion classes, he discovered his passion for aeronautics.

During a school tour, he stopped to admire a vintage picture of a plane flying over Manhattan. Pointing to the flight deck, I said, “Someday, you’ll be right there.”

“Someday,” he agreed.

Stories like those of Hassan, Jenny and Malik offer a glimpse of the great work happening every day in these incubators of innovation. They also serve as reminders of the clear role that community colleges play in ensuring that. America’s more than 1,100 community colleges are playing a major role in helping to ensure that our higher education system is once again, first in the world. And, every step of progress brings us closer to reaching our North Star Goal – to reclaim our place as the nation with the world’s highest proportion of college graduates.

Ted Mitchell is Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.

Boulder Valley School District Shines in Solar-Powered Learning

Note: U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools recognizes schools, districts and postsecondary institutions that are 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching environmental education. To share innovative practices in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.

Imagine a gymnasium filled with children eagerly raising their hands during a school-wide event when asked the question, “How is electricity at your school produced?” In many of the schools in Boulder Valley School District (BVSD), with our annual 300-plus days of Colorado sunshine, the answer to that question is an enthusiastic “SOLAR POWER!”

We were delighted to showcase our solar program during the 2014 Green Strides Best Practices Tour which visited BVSD Sept 17. Approximately 8 percent of our district-wide energy needs are met by solar, with panels on 28 of our 55 schools. By taking advantage of community partnerships, grants and bond money, we’ve been able to install solar power in schools across the district.

(Photo credit: Boulder Valley School District)

The growing dome greenhouse at Columbine Elementary. (Photo credit: Boulder Valley School District)

The Renew Our Schools Program, for example, helped support the installation of solar panels at Arapahoe Ridge High School and kick-started the creation of a Green Team, who we heard from on the first stop of the tour. This team led efforts to green the school, including competing in BVSD’s Energy Challenge, an effort to conserve energy through behavioral change among building occupants. While the solar panels help raise awareness about alternative energy and give students data to manipulate, student-led conservation measures, such as educating the school community about ways to save energy, auditing the school’s usage and taking follow up action on the findings, lead to even greater energy savings.

Additionally, a bond program in 2006 funded the solar panels and other green features at LEED Platinum Casey Middle School, which was also part of the tour. The solar panels double as cover for bike parking, offering shade and weather protection to the many students who bike to school year-round as part of the Alternative Transportation Program. Teachers at Casey incorporate live data from the Green Touch Screen and hosted Energy Days in which students learned about solar energy and baked cookies using a solar oven, among other interactive lessons. The sun not only provides clean electricity, but floods the school with natural daylight by design, so students and staff can be at their most productive.

During the tour’s stop at Columbine Elementary, before visiting the community supported gardens and growing dome greenhouse, we headed to the rooftop to see the roughly 100kW photovoltaic system. The system is part of a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) BVSD signed with Solar City in June 2011. The 14 schools in the agreement have large-scale systems that provide an additional 1.4 MW of solar power for the district and 15 to 30 percent of each school’s electricity. All the schools in the PPA have websites showing live data from the solar panels and real-time energy consumption. These schools are using materials provided by the National Energy Education Development Project and Solar  City for lessons about renewable energy and efficiency, providing standards-based real life examples of sustainability, math and science.

The Sustainability Management System has guided this work, and the District has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and has significantly reduced our environmental footprint. However, we see the real value from our sustainability efforts in educating our students and using these opportunities to prepare our students to be engaged environmental stewards and successful, life-long learners.

Dr. Ghita Carroll is Sustainability Coordinator at the Boulder Valley School District.

Promoting Safe and Supportive Schools

Cross-posted from the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs blog.

Last week, Secretary Duncan joined representatives from education and juvenile justice organizations at the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Summit on School Discipline and Climate. There, he spoke about the importance of comprehensively supporting our students – and not just when it comes to raising test scores. Our schools should first, and foremost, be safe places to learn and our students should feel secure and valued.

We’d all agree that acting out in school is both disrespectful and disruptive, but should a minor infraction like tardiness or a dress code violation earn a student suspension or expulsion? For some kids, that’s exactly what happens, thanks to zero-tolerance disciplinary policies in place in school districts across the country. What’s even more troubling, too often these removals from school begin a road to academic failure and even later involvement in the juvenile justice system.

Under a promising effort called the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, the Departments of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services, in partnership with philanthropies, are helping to foster safe, supportive, and productive learning environments while keeping students in school. As part of the initiative, on Oct. 6 and 7 we held a National Leadership Summit on School Climate and Discipline that brought together teams of educators and justice system professionals from 20 states and the District of Columbia to discuss how to improve school disciplinary practice and reduce student entry into the juvenile justice system. The summit provided the opportunity for states and local jurisdictions to develop strategies and begin taking steps toward disciplinary and juvenile justice reform. We also announced $4.3 million in grant awards to support activities designed to keep kids in school and out of court.

Kids should be held responsible for their behavior, but there are better alternatives to the harsh disciplinary methods being used in too many districts. By working with schools and justice system professionals, I believe we can find ways to keep our kids in school and on the path to learning and success.

Karol Mason is Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice.