Mar 232010

Most of the focus of the “Achievement Gap” is on moving students, especially those that are not at grade level, to a level of proficiency that can be measured on standardized tests. The math MCAS in Massachusetts is the state wide test given to students in grades 3 – 8. The latest results of the test are illustrated in this achievement “pie” which shows results for the state: 17% are failing, 30% need to improve academically, 33% are proficient and 20% score at an advanced level.

If there is $1,000,000 to spend on these students –  how would you allocate it? 

Most of the funding would be spent helping those that are being left behind, failing in the subject material, to gain skills that move them toward proficiency.  The funds so allocated would help constrained district budgets to add special remedial programs for those students that have not been able to extract  learnings from their daily classes (for whatever reason).  Is the focus on moving those most in academic need appropriate,  providing the greatest societal return?  The question seems sterile and clinical as if we are not talking about children, families and communities. But it is a question that should be asked even if politically incorrect.

There are students that with slightly more attention, encouragement and self motivation could become proficient, achieving a standing within their respective grades that may serve to inspire them  to become self motivated learners.  These students may require differentiated instruction to ensure that the material conforms to their learning styles and abilities.  This group also needs motivated, well educated teachers with expectations of performance that will not accept less than proficient performance.  This group is large and the gains made will impact many children, families and communities.

Another  “achievement gap” that goes mostly unreported is the gap in the “advanced” scoring students from one community to the next.  In some affluent communities, their advanced scoring student population is in the 40% to 50% range.  In other communities, mostly lower income, the percentage of advanced scorers may be as low as 4%.  In  Massachusetts, 20% of students score at an advanced level on the math MCAS across grades 3 – 8.  Is it possible that many students that have the capability to score at an advanced level are merely passing at proficient.  In other words are we so focused on getting to proficiency for the underserved communities that we are missing those students that could easily achieve an advanced score if they had been in an environment where that was the expectation?

Should finding students that have the capacity to achieve advanced scores on tests like the MCAS  be as important as moving failing students forward?  Some could argue that it is.  The data clearly shows that within even the most dysfunctional school systems in the state there are small groups of advanced achievers significantly outperforming their school peers and the majority of students state wide.  These students are truly outstanding.  It is easier for an achiever to find their place in districts where advanced students are 40% or more.  But those students that are achievers in districts where they are obvious exceptions are remarkable and they should be identified as such. 

These are future leaders, that through some of the most trying situations, have been able to demonstrate ability that come easy to others.  Finding these students, providing them with encouragement, a great education and more importantly a sense of a like minded, academically focused, community is imperative to the future of this state and this country.

If we have $1,000,000 to spend – how much are we spending on them?  How much are we investing on developing the leaders that will bring our communities out of the grip of generational poverty?  Find the leaders, invest in them, educate them with real world knowledge, inspire them to service and they will change their world.

 Posted by at 12:25 am
Mar 112010

Education reform seems to be a popular subject these days, sharing the news spotlight with the likes of elections in Iraq, trouble in Greece and the ongoing health care debacle in Washington.  Today the Wall Street Journal published an article about a possible growing trend to move to a 4 day school week as a means to stretch the shrinking budgets of some states. 

According to Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal:

“A small but growing number of school districts across the country are moving to a four-day week, in a shift they hope will help close gaping budget holes and stave off teacher layoffs, but that critics fear could hurt students’ education….

Some schools, meanwhile, say they are turning to the four-day schedule as a last resort. In North Branch, Minn., school Superintendent Deb Henton said her 3,500-student district, facing a $1.3 million deficit, is simply out of options.”

The US education system is now becoming a harbinger for many other infrastructure systems in the country.  We are spending billions annually educating kids in public schools.  Yet a large percentage of these kids are performing well below their respective grade level.  And this is occurring in an environment where many states have already lowered their education standards. 

As a country it seems that we are waking up to the failure of education at the same time that we are facing an uncertain and perilous financial future.  Although the Obama administration has taken on the challenge of upgrading education, they are also struggling to find ways to upgrade a massive health care system, regulate financial markets that have nearly collapsed, ensure that we are not attacked by a growing horde of enemies, negotiate with a congress that is out of control and appease foreign bankers that are buying more and more influence in the United States. 

The data from most states tell the story of a public education system that is producing too many children that will simply not be competitive in the global market where technology rules, math is an essential skill and a lifelong ability to acquire new knowledge will be the requirement.  In 2006, around 400,000 15 year old students from around the world were randomly selected to participate in a global test in 57 countries.  This test, administered by the  OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is used to gauge the preparedness of students globally. 

The United States ranked 25th of the 30  OECD countries in math, behind Canada, Korea, Australia, Japan, Denmark, Ireland, United Kingdom, Poland, Germany, France and Spain, to  name a few.  Our 15 year olds dropped in their relative world standing yet again.  At the same time that emerging markets are investing in education as a means to ensure their global future, our states are cutting the school week because they cannot find the funds to pay for custodial and cafeteria support for an additional day. 

A large part of the success of charter schools that serve inner city lower income communities can be attributed to the extended school day.  Teachers in one charter school in Boston have the luxury of 2 distinct hours to teach math to children from neighborhoods where the norm is under achievement.  These schools are finding that the extended day provides them more time to engage students, and it provides students with a safe, academically focused alternative to their homes or the streets.  The results – higher scores on standardized tests in math.

As towns and cities struggle to manage budgets in this era of excessive government waste,  they are finding that the large allocation, normally set aside to ensure the progress of our future generations can be tapped to pay for today’s spending.  The sacrifice we are making today will be felt for generations as our ability to compete globally slips away and our ability to fund a future for the aging baby boomers is as uncertain as our ability to provide for generations of future workers that are facing declining wages.  As the rest of the world advances in the race to global competitiveness we are stuck  on the sidelines trying to balance budgets that are forecasting deficits for years to come.  The surplus money that we had for a short time has been spent on two wars, tax cuts, and government spending encouraged by well connected lobbiest.  What we are left with is deficits, in our national budget and in the education and skills of future generations of Americans.

TV News Story on Districts Near Atlanta ,   All Things Consider Discussion (March 9, 2010) , South Dakota Joins in as well

 Posted by at 6:00 am
Mar 042010

The debates in Washington continue over matters big and small.  Education reform is one of the big issues that is drawing support from the unlikely team of Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrinch as they tour the country together and engage the media, explaining the urgency of reforming a system that has failed so many for so long.  New solutions are being devised and  will be funded by The new Race To The Top Initiative which is a $4.35 billion incentive program designed by the United States Department of Education to spur progressive reforms in state and local district K-12 education.   But the relationship between governmental spending on education and results needs to be explored before good money is wasted on failing systems.  This is the capital conundrum, embodied in the DC school system.

On most any measure the public schools of the District of Columbia are at the bottom of so many lists except one.  When you look at spending per student across the country, DC ranks at least third and given some new data that has been made available it may be first.  In 2006 it is reported that , DC spent $14,324 per student slightly  behind New Jersey ($15,691) and New York ($15,981).  Yet with this spending we have a school community that is a poster child for the need for fundamental reform that may require much more than new investment in failing schools.  Once again the data provides some insight.

In 2009, the 32,375 DC students  in grade 3 – 10 sat for their Math standardized test.  55% of those students received scores that indicated that they were not performing at their respective grade level.  20% were at a level that is called “Below Basic.”  On the NAEP standardized math test which provides a national measurement allowing state by state comparisons, DC was at the bottom with all other states outperforming their scores. 

The DC public school population is predominantly Black (83%) with a small white population (5%).  The Hispanic student population is 10% and the Asian student population is 1%.  In a September 2009 presentation authored by Cathie Carothers, Assistant Superintendent of Elementary and Secondary Education, two highlights out of three discussed the progress made in test scores and the fact that progress is being made closing the “achievement gap” when compared to white students in the DC schools.  A closer review of the report and the public data shows that progress IS being made when compared to scores from 2006 where only 35% of students were proficient in reading and 27% were proficient in math.  But once again we hear discussion about this so-called “achievement gap.”  In this instance the benchmark for achievement is 5% of students across the DC system. 

The numbers, although inconvenient, are there for all to see, analyze and discuss.  These 5% white students in the DC systems have an 85% math proficiency rate, while Black students have a 40% math proficiency rate and Hispanics a 53% math proficiency rate.  Cutting the data another way provides more insight.  No school that has a math proficiency rate less than 50%, 81 out of 134 schools in total, has a white population large enough to be counted in the state’s reporting.   The benchmark that is being used in this so-called “Achievement Gap” measure is not only a small minority of students (5%) but they primarily attend only 12 of the 134 districts schools.  

Many of these 12 schools have math proficiency rates that are  in the 80% range.  But they are not reflective of the rest of the public schools in the DC area.  Most have a very small lower income population in the single digits compared to the aggregate of 70% lower income student population or more across all schools in DC.  .  In essence these 12 schools are most likely havens in the DC public school system where the “Achievement Culture”, discussed in prior blog entries, can exist in some form. 

The DC aggregate  school budget, with estimates of $20K per student, funds both the dysfunctional schools as well as the few havens which have managed to create a culture that differs from the majority of the schools in the district.  Money alone will not create an achievement culture.  And as we can see in so many examples, it is this achievement culture that must be fostered, nurtured and developed.  Schools are only one link in the chain of success. 

The capital conundrum is that the easiest and most politically expedient weapon in the government’s arsenal is the funneling of tax payer dollars to an issue of interest.  But the school district which shamefully exists in the backyard of our nation’s home is a reflection of the failure of government to recognize the complexity and the unfortunate reality of the social issues that have plagued us and may weaken us beyond the point of recovery.

 Posted by at 6:44 am
Mar 022010

When it comes to reporting on the current state of education, the popular press generally focuses on the “achievement gap,” which refers to the observed disparity on a number of educational measures between the performance of groups of students, generally defined by gender, race/ethnicity, physical ability, and socioeconomic status.  The existence of the achievement gap has been clearly demonstrated by standardized testing and recognized by legislatures across the country.  Many remedies have been discussed and proposed to close the gap between underperforming school districts and those that are producing students that demonstrate proficiency for their respective grade level. Much less focus has been placed on those schools that are significantly outperforming their counterparts.  Schools that may have successfully created an Achievement Culture

In other words, are there any insights that can be learned by answering the less popular question –  why do some schools, districts and students consistently outperform (achieve more than) their counterparts?  Could it be that these schools and districts are part of an “achievement culture” that places a greater value on both the process of academic learning as well as the rewards of a good education? A review of publically available data may provide some insight into these questions. 

Massachusetts elementary students in grades 3 through 8 sit for standardized statewide testing, called the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).  Each student’s Math MCAS, once numerically scored, is converted into one of 4 evaluative categories, [Advanced, Proficient, Needs Improvement, Warning/Failing].  In Massachusetts in 2009, across grades 3 through 8 statewide math scores were:

2009 Math MCAS Scores Grades 3 – 8
Score Categories State – Wide
Advanced 20%
Proficient 33%
Needs Improvement 30%
Failing 17%


In other words, 53% of students tested were performing at their respective grade level or better . While 47% were either below grade level or failing.

 Posted by at 12:05 am
Feb 262010

Each year Massachusetts students sit to take a standardized test called the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) in several subject areas including math.  These test takers include students in traditional public district schools as well as public charter schools across the state.  As one would expect, students come from a variety of demographic, socio-economic and ethnic groups.  Results from the 2009 math MCAS test for 3rd through 8th grade reveal an interesting relationship.   A higher perecentage of lower income students in a district results in fewer students scoring proficient or better on the math MCAS  test.

This relationship will probably not surprise many, especially those in the field of education.  It seems there is general acceptance that lower income communities produce students that do not achieve as much as their more affluent counter parts.  However, this perception of lowered expectations  has been refuted by many of the charter schools in Massachusetts that serve these same lower income communities.  These public charter school students have to sit for the same math MCAS test but their results do not reflect the same relationship between income level and proficiency rate.

What insight does this provide parents, policy makers and reformist?  Clearly the role of charter schools as an alternative to district schools within lower income communities needs to be supported.   These charter schools, not bound by this unhealthy relationship,  may have created cultures of achievement similar to that experienced in more affluent communities.  Creating an environment where academic achievement is expected and is the norm may motivate students to strive and become more engaged in the learning process. 

On the other hand, public district schools that have a long history of under achievement may be burdened with a culture of low expectations that may have infected both the student body as well as the teaching staff. 

 Although the positives and negatives of the charter movement are in constant debate in school districts across the country, the results of the Massachusetts Math standardized testing (MCAS)  for public charter schools demonstrate that the relationship between income and Math scores can be broken.

Rhode Island teachers in the news

 Posted by at 5:00 pm
Feb 252010

Hidden within the current national education buzz are non-spoken questions about public education’s role, the reality of the results that can be achieved and the cost.  These subtle underlying questions seem to be scratching the surface of a much larger national issue that involves preconceived notions of class, race and gender.  Subjects that make people cringe when they are viewed from the popular prism of political correctness.  These fundamental questions on the social make-up of the world’s last remaining super power are in and of themselves topics for scholars, academicians and policy wonks.  But they are also at the core of the question of why public education is failing in the country.

So why is public education failing so many in the United States?  The answer is in one way obvious and in other ways so very subtle as not to be considered or discussed openly.

 Public education is failing those that are expected to fail and supporting those that are intended to succeed.  Of course this is a very general statement with many shades of gray hidden in such a gross characterization.  But a case in point may serve to help to illustrate the overall premise.

Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts is the home to a few affluent old towns like Andover which is the home of the world renowned private high school  Philips Academy and a very respected public high school (Andover High).  Merrimack Valley is also the home of Lawrence, Massachusetts, which for decades has been the lower income landing spot for newly arriving immigrants looking to thrive in the  land of opportunity.  Lawrence is an old world mill town with brick smokestack towers serving as a reminder of its long past industrial days.  These two towns are close neighbors, sharing a border that separates the community in ways that are culturally clear to those that live in the area.  But all one has to do to better understand these contrasting towns is to look at the State’s standardized metrics for high school performance.  The numbers do not lie.  Instead they demonstrate a phenomenon that on the surface appears to be pervasive throughout the United States system of education. 

 Posted by at 9:02 am
Feb 222010

Early in the last century, department store scion John Wanamaker lamented that “I know half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, but I can never find out which half.” Today, he might be even more pessimistic about the impact of his ad dollars. While every CMO hopes great creative will allow their brand’s story to clearly reach both users and non-users, it has become increasingly difficult to break through the clutter and noise of the myriad messages received by consumers every day. This challenge is only compounded by today’s tighter marketing budgets and bottom-line focus, which requires that every advertising expenditure be directly tied to incremental volume. The old method of setting advertising budgets by simple sales ratios is no longer acceptable. CMOs require that their advertising investments deliver quantifiable results not only by increasing brand awareness but by actually holding or growing share of market. Moreover, senior marketing executives want these results achieved with greater efficiency than ever before.

It has often been theorized that an ad that provides an opportunity to actually experience a brand’s attributes would be more motivating than one that allows a consumer to just read about what a product does. According to this theory, these experiential campaigns – ads that create sense memories – should generate greater sales than ads alone. In other words, because these ads allow consumers to interact with products at the same time that they receive the ad message, a more indelible memory is made and this leads to greater purchase intent. Trying to quantify this effect, however, has proven elusive.

Now a new research study conducted by Massachusetts-based consulting firm FromTopDown in partnership with research firms Millward Brown and The Greenfield Group, documents that advertising accompanied by a sensory product experience generates not only greater brand awareness, overall brand ratings and purchase intent, but actually generates incremental sales with a positive profit return on the advertising investment.

 Posted by at 1:07 am
Feb 212010

In 2009, of the 73,000 8th graders in 283 school districts in Massachusetts taking the math MCAS, only 49% passed with a score of proficient or advanced.  23% failed outright and another 28% needed to make specific improvements to attain the necessary level of proficiency for their grade.  In 45% of Massachusetts schools districts half of the 8th graders could not successfully pass the MCAS. That translates  in raw numbers to 37,000 8th grade students.  Most will move on to high school next year.

Although this lack of proficiency by half of Massachusetts’s graduating 8th graders may seem shocking to those outside of the educational industrial complex,   what was even more surprising is that Massachusetts students are more proficient in mathematics than students in all other states as scored by a national test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) .

The publically available data demonstrates how much the education system is failing the children and parents of the country.  In one of the most educationally progressive states in the country 50% of the math students are not performing at their grade level.  This is in spite of a $12.3 billion dollar annual state education budget for grades K-12 which equates to nearly $12,500 per student per year.  $8.9 billion of which pays the salary for 138,000 teachers.

 Posted by at 10:21 pm
Feb 092010

Thank you for taking the time to visit the FromTopDown Blog.

Over the past year we have been researching and collecting information on market research, US economic data, product experience marketing, and the reforms taking place in public education.  We hope to provide a series of articles and threads that will provide information and opinion that can be used to inspire some debate and conversation.

Thank you and join in

 Posted by at 11:30 am