Archive for September, 2012

September 28, 2012

Revolutionary writing instruction that is ‘an old idea done better’

by Grace

Here’s another case of everything old is new again.  A New York City school finds that returning to fundamentals like explicit grammar instruction and formulaic writing has succeeded in turning around the dismal performance of high poverty students.  No iPads were required.

The problems at New Dorp High School were similar to many that afflict other lower-income public schools.

… students from poor and working-class families. In 2006, 82 percent of freshmen entered the school reading below grade level. Students routinely scored poorly on the English and history Regents exams….

Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects….

… the students’ sentences were short and disjointed.

… These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did. “Yes, they could read simple sentences,” but works like the Gettysburg Address were beyond them—not because they were too lazy to look up words they didn’t know, but because “they were missing a crucial understanding of how language works.

This writing skills problem is widespread.

According to the Nation’s Report Card, in 2007, the latest year for which this data is available, only 1 percent of all 12th-graders nationwide could write a sophisticated, well-­organized essay. Other research has shown that 70 to 75 percent of students in grades four through 12 write poorly. … for decades, achievement rates in writing have remained low.

There appears to be a massive failure in learning writing skills.  What type of writing instruction is used in most public schools?

… elementary-­school students … today mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction …

… pedagogical pendulum that has swung too far, favoring self-­expression and emotion over lucid communication….

For most of the 1990s, elementary- and middle-­school children kept journals in which they wrote personal narratives, poetry, and memoirs and engaged in “peer editing,” without much attention to formal composition….

The explicit instruction of previous times has morphed into discovery learning, where students are encouraged to figure it out themselves, to “construct” their own learning.  Being creative has become more important than following formal rules.

… Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences. Later instruction focused on building solid paragraphs into full-blown essays….  About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach. The popular thinking was that writing should be “caught, not taught,” explains Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State University. Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will “catch” what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.

Low-income students have particularly suffered from the current approach.

The catch method works for some kids, to a point… Kids who come from poverty, who had weak early instruction, or who have learning difficulties, he explains, “can’t catch anywhere near what they need” to write an essay….

New Dorp High School tried something different.

Education schools don’t spend much time on how to teach writing, so it’s not surprising that New Dorp teachers were unaware of their own teaching failures.  They blamed the students’ poor performance on poverty, low intelligence, or laziness.  The school tried ‘innovative’ methods, like small learning communities and special after-school programs.  Nothing worked, until they carefully explored the missing skills and took specific steps to address the gaps.  Deirdre DeAngelis, the school principal, learned of the acclaimed writing program used by principal Judith Hochman of the Windward School, a private school for learning disabled children.

The way Catholic schools used to teach, using explicit instruction and a writing “formula”

The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children do not have to “catch” a single thing. They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones… It is, at least initially, a rigid, unswerving formula. “I prefer recipe,” Hochman says, “but formula? Yes! Okay!”

… “The thing is, kids need a formula, at least at first, because what we are asking them to do is very difficult. So God, let’s stop acting like they should just know how to do it. Give them a formula! Later, when they understand the rules of good writing, they can figure out how to break them.”

… Teachers stopped giving fluffy assignments such as “Write a postcard to a friend describing life in the trenches of World War I” and instead demanded that students fashion an expository essay describing three major causes of the conflict.

The successful results of the back-to-basics (revolutionary) writing program at New Dorp

… This spring, the graduation rate is expected to hit 80 percent, a staggering improvement over the 63 percent figure that prevailed before the Writing Revolution began.

… newfound ability to write solid, logically ordered paragraphs about what she’s learned, citing examples and using transitions between ideas.

Reading comprehension also improved.

As her understanding of the parts of speech grew, Monica’s reading comprehension improved dramatically. “Before, I could read, sure. But it was like a sea of words,” she says. “The more writing instruction I got, the more I understood which words were important.”

More schools should try this ‘”old” way of instruction.
The Hochman Program being used at New Dorp High School is writing instruction that offers direct and precise guidance incorporated into a systemic process, along with explicit grammar instruction and a strong focus on sentence  composition.  This is very similar to the Kerrigan method of Writing to the Point, a personal favorite of mine.  I strongly believe this type of instruction would benefit most types of students, offering better preparation for college or career than the fluffy free-for-all type of writing instruction now popular in many public schools.  Perhaps this New Dorp success story will help fuel a change with more schools following in their footsteps.

(Cross-posted at Kitchen Table Math)

Related:

September 27, 2012

A glossary of high school standardized tests

by Grace

From Princeton Review, a glossary of standardized tests

AP (Advanced Placement): End of year, college level exams that are used for admissions purposes at just a few competitive schools (the Ivies, Berkeley, UCLA, USC), and to give students college credit at virtually every college and university. The scoring grid goes from 1-5 (higher is better), with 3 representing a passing score. These tests are traditionally given at a student’s high school during the second and third weeks of May. ACT: An alternative to the SAT. This test tends to reward students who are better in reading and grammar than they are in math. The ACT is the dominant college entrance exam in the Midwest and the South, and is scored on a 1-36 basis (the average score is about 21 or 22). The best time to take this test is in February or April of the junior year and/or September of the senior year. The practice ACT is called the PLAN. To sign up for the actual ACT, go to http://www.act.org.

PSAT: An excellent practice test for the SAT that has absolutely nothing to do with college admissions. Rather it serves the following functions. It is a strong window into your testing soul — if you do well on the PSAT, you are likely to do equally well on the SAT. Very good testers can achieve National Merit stardom, a scholarship contest that is predominantly linked to PSAT scores from the junior year of PSAT testing. Finally, when you sign up for the PSAT, you will be given the chance to join the Student Search Service through which your name will be released to colleges and you will receive ridiculous amounts of junk mail from colleges that both interest and horrify you. The PSAT is offered at your school during the second week or the third Saturday of October and you must sign up for this test through your high school. There is no essay or Algebra II on the PSAT and it’s about half the length of the SAT.

SAT: The grande dame of admissions tests and you know it all too well. The SAT is popular in the West and the East, and is scored from 600-2400. The average score is about a 1560, a good score is anything over 1800, and 2200+ is the number for the most ridiculously competitive schools. The SAT has Math, Reading and Writing sections, includes some Algebra II and an essay, and can be taken 2-3 times since colleges only count students’ highest scores. To sign up to take the actual SAT, you go to http://www.collegeboard.com.

Subject Tests: The Subject Tests are one hour, multiple choice exams that focus on individual subjects. Until recently, these used to be called the SAT II exams. Subject Tests are offered in Biology (Ecology or Molecular), Chemistry, Physics, World History, US History, Math Level I (not accepted by the UC but is accepted by private colleges), Math Level 2, English Literature and a host of foreign languages. These are of some significance in elite private college admissions, and can be submitted to UC schools to show strength in a subject where perhaps your grade is a little soft. If you are fluent in a foreign language, then take the Language with Listening Subject Test on the first Saturday in November. The test is offered in French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Korean and Chinese. You will need to bring a portable CD player with headphones with you to the testing center. You may take up to three Subject Tests in one day (although we wouldn’t recommend it – it’s pretty tiring), and each Subject Test is scored on the 200-800 scale. A good score is 600+, and a great score is anything over 700. To sign up to take the actual Subject Tests, you go to http://www.collegeboard.com.

Related:  A recommended schedule for taking the SAT, ACT, and AP tests (Cost of College)

September 26, 2012

Quick Takes – New York test scores may drop next year, mining jobs pay better than Ivy League degree, girls still avoid shop class, and more

by Grace

—   Changes in New York’s standardized tests next year may cause scores to drop.

That is because the state is moving quickly to put in place new curriculum standards, called Common Core, which stress more critical thinking to help prepare students for college and careers. The state’s math and English exams, therefore, will for the first time be testing students on elements of the Common Core.

Students taking the English exams next year, for instance, will be asked to analyze and compare passages, rather than summarize them. In math, fractions, rather than probability or statistics, will be stressed.

“I would not be surprised if the test scores next year would drop, because it will be a whole new test based on much higher standards,” said one state education official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “The Common Core is a much more rigorous set of standards.”

Aaron Pallas, professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, who is an expert on city schools data, also predicted there may be a drop in scores next year.

“It’s almost always the case when there’s a fundamental change in a test format that scores go down,” Dr. Pallas said. “So there’s going to be discontinuity. That’s one reason why it’s hard to make judgments from one year to the next when there’s several moving pieces.”

He added: “It will take some time and next year will be a new baseline from which we can look forward to see how things are happening over the next three or four years.”


—  Forget Harvard.  Go for the big bucks in mining careers.

Harvard University’s graduates are earning less than those from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology after a decade-long commodity bull market created shortages of workers as well as minerals.

Those leaving the college of 2,300 students this year got paid a median salary of $56,700, according to PayScale Inc., which tracks employee compensation data from surveys. At Harvard, where tuition fees are almost four times higher, they got $54,100. Those scheduled to leave the campus in Rapid City, South Dakota, in May are already getting offers, at a time when about one in 10 recent U.S. college graduates is out of work.
Harvard Losing Out to South Dakota in Graduate Pay: Commodities (Bloomberg)


—  Why don’t more girls enroll in shop class?  “Stigma”, according to NPR

The Shop Class Stigma: What Title IX Didn’t Change (NPR)

Forty years ago, President Richard Nixon signed Title IX, which said no person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from any education program or activity. Vocational education courses that barred girls — such as auto mechanics, carpentry and plumbing — became available for everyone. But it’s still hard to find girls in classes once viewed as “for boys only.”…

Now, for the most part, schools don’t discriminate or deny girls educational opportunities. Yet, the conclusion by a National Women’s Law Center study a few years ago raised a different point.

Boys are still routinely steered toward courses that lead to higher-paying careers in technology and trades. Meanwhile, 90 percent of students in courses that lead to lower-wage jobs, like child care and cosmetology, are female.

I don’t accept that a male/female imbalance for a particular occupation is necessarily a problem that must be fixed by legislation.  But if there is a problem of pushing girls towards lower-wage jobs, the NPR story used a poor example to show this since the girl in the story was steered away from auto mechanics toward engineering.   Her family encouraged her to aim for a higher paying job in a field dominated by men, not exactly a fit with the NPR’s narrative.


—  Reading the classics may improve executive function and other attention-related abilities.

Reading a classic novel such as “Pride and Prejudice” can be entertaining, but, according to new research by a Michigan State University professor, it also can provide many other benefits beyond that….

… blood flow was increased in areas of the brain far beyond those responsible for what cognitive scientists call “executive function,” regions normally associated with tasks that require close attention, such as studying, doing complex math problems or reading intensely….

“It’s early, but what this research suggests so far is that core skills in the liberal arts have immense cognitive complexity,” she said. “It’s not only the books we read, but also the act of thinking rigorously about them that’s of value, exercising the brain in critical ways.”

The work also brings together scientists and literary scholars to explore the relationship between reading, attention and distraction.

Imagine that.  Assigning students books with higher levels of text complexity is good for learning.

Related:  High school students are assigned too many FIFTH-GRADE books (Cost of College)

September 25, 2012

Can robo-teachers save money?

by Grace

Robo-teachers may do as well as their human counterparts, at a lower cost.  It sounds too good to be true, but one recent experiment showed this is possible.

In experiments at six public universities, students assigned randomly to statistics courses that relied heavily on “machine-guided learning” software — with reduced face time with instructors — did just as well, in less time, as their counterparts in traditional, instructor-centric versions of the courses….

The study, called “Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities,” involved students taking introductory statistics courses at six (unnamed) public universities. A total of 605 students were randomly assigned to take the course in a “hybrid” format: they met in person with their instructors for one hour a week; otherwise, they worked through lessons and exercises using an artificially intelligent learning platform developed by learning scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative.

On the downside, students found the robotic software less interesting than human teachers and they came away with a perception they had learned less.

How much can be saved by replacing humans with robots?

In terms of instructor compensation, the researchers estimated, a machine-guided course featuring weekly face-to-face sessions with part-time instructors would cost between 36 and 57 percent less than a traditional course in which a full professor presides over each 40-student section; and it would cost 19 percent less than if a single full professor gave one lecture to all sections before breaking them into smaller discussion groups led by teaching assistants.

Perhaps the warm and fuzzy elements of robotic instructors could be improved by well-designed avatars.

In a series of ingenious yet simple experiments, Rich Mayer and Scott DaPra showed that students learn better from an onscreen slide show when it is accompanied by an onscreen avatar that uses social cues.

Along with a human voice, the avatars “used a full compliment of social cues (gesturing, changing posture, facial expression, changes in eye gaze, and lip movements synchronized to speech) which were meant to direct student attention to relevant features of the slide show”.

Related:

September 24, 2012

St. Ambrose University offers guaranteed merit scholarships

by Grace

If you are interested in a guaranteed merit scholarship and if a midwestern location is appealing, you might want to investigate St. Ambrose University.  Unlike many other guaranteed scholarships, the St. Ambrose awards seem to preferentially value grades over test scores.

St. Ambrose is a private institution in Davenport, Iowa with an undergraduate enrollment of 2,752.  It ranked 40 on the US News Regional Universities (Midwest) list.

A full listing of all scholarships can be found at their website, but here are the guaranteed awards.

  • Ambrose Scholar: Full tuition (on campus residents only). May be offset by state and/or federal aid if eligible. To qualify the student must score 30 or above on the ACT and straight A’s for the first 7 semesters in high school, and maintain a 3.25 GPA while at St. Ambrose. For high school students only. A limited number of these scholarships are available in the 2013-14 academic year. [10 are awarded each year according to one source.]
  • Honors Scholar: $17,000 (on campus residents only). To qualify students must score 28 or above on the ACT and receive a 3.9 GPA or above in high school (on an unweighted 4.0 scale) and must maintain a 3.25 GPA while at St. Ambrose. For high school students only.
  • Presidential Scholar: $14,000 (on campus residents only). To qualify the student must score a 26 or above on the ACT and receive a 3.8 GPA or above in high school (on an unweighted 4.0 scale), and must maintain a 3.25 GPA while at St. Ambrose. For high school students only.

With a COA of about $37,000, the estimated yearly net COA after accounting for guaranteed merit scholarships and assuming no need-based financial aid would be:

    • Ambrose Scholar:  $13,000
    • Honors Scholar:  $20,000
    • Presidential Scholar:  $23,000

St. Ambrose is located in the Quad Cities area, less than 200 miles from Chicago.  It offers an honors program with the  opportunity to work with a faculty member to develop a research project or scholarly activity.  The three most popular majors are business, psychology and education.  With 57% of its students living in campus housing, five new residence halls have been built and another remodeled since 2000.

Since it has a rolling admissions policy with applications accepted as early as September, St. Ambrose could be a safety school for some students who may learn of their acceptance in the early fall of their senior year.

Related:

September 21, 2012

21st century skills look very much like 20th century skills

by Grace

Employers want 20th century skills from their employees.

In recent decades, leaders in government, business, and beyond have come to agree that long-term investments in education are necessary to address the growing mismatch between education and skills. The Task Force agrees with this assessment. The question, then, is the specific areas that make sense for additional investment. In surveys and interviews, most employers say the skills that are in high demand today are the same skills that students were supposed to be learning in school fifty or one hundred years ago: the ability to write and speak clearly and persuasively, the ability to solve problems and think critically, and the ability to work both independently and on teams. The difference today is that more skilled workers are needed than in the past.

- From a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)–sponsored Independent Task Force report on U.S. Education Reform and National Security

I see too much emphasis on so-call 21st Century Skills at the expense of fundamental 20th century skills.  Teaching students how to post on Facebook instead of how to write a coherent paragraph or spending class time on non-academic group activities instead of on word analysis and vocabulary skills are just some examples.  I wish schools would get back to the basics, and it looks as if many employers agree with me.

The report notes that while the United States invests more in K-12 public education than many other developed countries, its students are ill prepared to compete with their global peers. According to the results of the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international assessment that measures the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science every three years, U.S. students rank fourteenth in reading, twenty-fifth in math, and seventeenth in science compared to students in other industrialized countries.

Katherine Beals wrote that the misplaced focus on technology crowds out learning fundamental skills.

In practice, more lap tops, more ipads, more Internet access, and more Smart Boards also water down the technical aspects of the curriculum, distracting students and teachers away from teaching and learning math skills to mastery, and from rigorous, focused mathematical and computational problem solving. Technology in the classroom may help create a generation of 21st century consumers, but not of gainfully employed 21st century producers.

Related:

September 20, 2012

A critical look at educational technology – are MOOCs losers?

by Grace

Arnold Kling gives his opinions on educational technology, labeling each option he reviews as either a Loser, Winner, or Magic Bullet.  His evaluations are based on his preference for a  many-to-one model.

… I believe that the future of teaching is not one-to-many. Instead, it is many-to-one. By many-to-one, I mean that one student receives personalized instruction that comes from many educators. To make that work, technology must act as an intermediary, taking the information from the educators and customizing it to fit the student’s knowledge, ability, and even his or her emotional state.


MOOCs – LOSER

Kling believe MOOCs are not working out, an opinion partly supported by the fact that over 90% of students who enroll do not finish the course.  This particular bit of data doesn’t necessarily persuade me since I think a free “Stanford” course will attract many curious people who just want to see what it’s about and who feel no urgency to complete it.  But I do like this argument – that it is misguided to believe one particular course will always find acceptance among hundreds of thousands of students scattered across the globe.

We should not be surprised that MOOCs do not benefit most of those who try them. Students differ in their cognitive abilities and learning styles. Even within a relatively homogenous school, you will see students put into separate tracks. If we do not teach the same course to students in a single high school, why would we expect one teaching style to fit all in an unsorted population of tens of thousands?

An online course that has been designed at Stanford is likely to best fit the students who are suited to that particular university. The other beneficiaries are likely to be students who have the right cognitive skills and learning style but happen to be unable to attend college in the United States.

Tablets – WINNER

Although I do not even own an iPad, I am optimistic that tablets can be winners in education. It strikes me that a tablet can replace anything students carry today in their backpacks, other than lunch. You can read your textbooks in electronic format. With the right app, you have a scientific calculator. With another app, you can have a day planner, and it is easy to imagine enhancing such an app so that teachers can access it to add assignments and reminders.

Adaptive Textbooks – MAGIC BULLET

… an electronic textbook that adjusts to the cognitive ability and learning style of the student. Adaptive textbooks will query students in order to make sure that they understand what they have been studying. They will also respond to student queries. Adaptive textbooks will implement the many-to-one teaching model.

More opinions from other writers

Not so fast on the “adaptive” power of technology –  Katherine Beals writes that there is still a signficant “feedback gap” in educational technology, so far failing to give the personalized feedback provided by a good teacher.  Kitchen Table Math

A bad review for a MOOC course  – A college math teacher finds that “Thrun was a terrible lecturer and that the Udacity Statistics 101 course was badly structured and poorly taught—nowhere near the quality of a standard community college offering of the similar courses”.  Gas station without pumps

September 19, 2012

Quick Takes – Teens not worried about retirement saving, MOOCs accepted for college credit, most students not ready for college, and more

by Grace

—  Nearly 40% of Generation Z (ages 13 to 22) expect to receive an inheritance and don’t believe they need to save for retirement.

Yikes!  Teens: Mom and Dad Will Leave Me Enough to Retire (USA Today)


—  ‘Colorado State Becomes the First American University to Accept MOOCs for Credit’

Udacity and EdX have set up a system for proctored final exams for their Massive Open Online Courses. The NYT reports that Colorado State University has become the first institution to accept such a proctored courses for university credit.  The NYT reports that several European universities have already done so. Given that hundreds of thousands of people are taking MOOCs, expect more to follow.
Jay P. Greene’s Blog


—  ‘ACT Reports Only 1 in 4 High School Students Ready for College’

Once again, the results showed that only one in four students are meeting all college readiness benchmarks in English, Reading, Math and Science, which is on par with The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2011 results….
Fastweb


—  ‘Ten Reasons to Ignore the U.S. News Rankings’

But the compiled data can be useful.

10. Who’s your Daddy? U.S. News actually does two separate things. First, it presents a huge amount of data about lots of schools, much of which can be quite useful. For example, it allows you to compare the SAT ranges or relative selectivity of a handful of schools in which you are interested. But the editors then go on to make judgments about the relative importance of each of these numbers and build these judgments into a formula.  But why should you accept the value judgments of a bunch of editors sitting in Washington, DC? You can take the numbers and devise your own rankings.
MInding The Campus


—  Head Start doesn’t work according to recently released report and as reported by Joe Klein.

We spend more than $7 billion providing Head Start to nearly 1 million children each year. And finally there is indisputable evidence about the program’s effectiveness, provided by the Department of Health and Human Services: Head Start simply does not work.
Via Meadia

Walt Gardner thinks ” it would be a big mistake to dismiss the value of Head Start out of hand”.

September 18, 2012

The messy Chicago teachers’ strike

by Grace

The Chicago teachers’ strike has entered its second week after teachers decided they need more time to review the tentative contract.  Calling the strike illegal, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is asking the court to force the teachers back to the classrooms.

The major issues are teacher evaluations, job security, and a longer school day.  

Chicago public schools have problems.

… 99.7% of Chicago teachers are rated satisfactory while the graduation rate is just 60%, only 20% of eighth-graders are proficient in reading and less than 8% of 11th-graders are college-ready on state tests….

… The average Chicago public-school teacher is the best-paid in the country, making between $71,000 (the union’s calculation) and $76,000 (the city’s). And that’s not counting benefits and pensions, paid days off, summer vacation and more. Teachers in New York and Los Angeles earn slightly less, and then the list drops off dramatically, with Dallas and Miami paying around $53,000 on average.

Even with dismal academic results and with a seemingly generous contract offer of a 16% raise over four years, 47% of registered voters support the striking teachers while only 39% oppose it.  Among the reasons for the public’s backing:

General pro-union sentiment

Unions are still hallowed organizations in Chicago, and the teachers union holds a special place of honor in many households where children often grow up to join the same police, firefighter or trade unions as their parents and grandparents.

The union won the PR battle.

To win friends, the union has engaged in something of a publicity campaign, telling parents repeatedly about problems with schools and the barriers that have made it more difficult to serve their kids. They cite classrooms that are stifling hot without air conditioning, important books that are unavailable and supplies as basic as toilet paper that are sometimes in short supply.

“They’ve been keeping me informed about that for months and months,” Grant said.

It was a shrewd tactic, said Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“This union figured out they couldn’t assume the public would be on their side so they went out and actively engaged in getting parent support,” Bruno said. “They worked like the devil to get it.”

Even though they may be unhappy with schools in general, parents tend to like the teachers they know.

… People generally like their kids’ teachers. Even those who may dislike the union like their teachers. They may agree with the notion of stronger assessments for teachers and perhaps also be against the union call for automatically rehiring those laid-off when vacancies do occur. But they like their teachers and so cast their lot with them.

It’s a dynamic at play whenever the under-performing Chicago system, which is beset by huge deficits, tries to close or consolidates schools. The school board usually gets its way but not before a very public uproar. Even parents at what are clearly low quality, poorly performing schools rise to protest. There’s a bond that blinds them to larger realities but ties them to that neighborhood building without any air conditioning.

Even after this strike is resolved, serious pension issues portend more education troubles ahead.  In Illinois, 71 cents of every new state education dollar goes to teachers’ retirement benefits, not to schools.  Earlier this year the state’s cedit rating was downgraded due to pension problems.

The teachers’ fund is one of the country’s worst-financed statewide pension systems, reporting that it is only 47 percent funded. And that’s if you buy the system’s rosy accounting assumptions, including that it will achieve 8.5 percent annual returns on its assets. This level is tied for the most aggressive investment assumption among state pension funds in the country, and the fund has had to get creative in an effort to meet it. Pensions & Investments magazine says it has the fourth-riskiest pension investment portfolio in the U.S., with less than 17 percent of its investments in fixed income and cash.
Illinois Is Pension Basket Case You Forgot About (Bloomberg)

Related:

September 17, 2012

Pell spending is down while number of participating students is up

by Grace

Click to view original image.

Overall Pell Grant spending decreased last year even while the number of recipients increased.

The federal government spent $2.2 billion less on Pell Grants in the most recent fiscal year (which ended on July 1) compared to the previous year, according to newly released preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Education. That decrease, to $33.4 billion from $35.6 billion, fell well short of the department’s estimated $40 billion price tag for Pell.

The dip in spending also occurred while the number of Pell recipients increased by 58,000. That means more of the almost 9.7 million lower-income students who received the grants last year got smaller awards. One reason for that could be more students attending college part time, because part-time enrollment status reduces Pell award amounts.

Most of the decrease, $1.4 billion, may be attributed to the enrollment drop in for-profit institutions.

For-profit students’ average grant award is larger than that for students who attend community colleges, who are more likely to enroll on a part-time basis. So the flattening of Pell spending despite increasing numbers of recipients might be partially due to the for-profits’ woes, but experts said it was too early to make that call based on the new numbers.

Other spending shifts:

… Community colleges and public four-year institutions received slightly more in Pell revenue, while private colleges saw a small decline. The number of Pell recipients increased at public four-year and private colleges, while slightly fewer students at community colleges received the grants.

The July 2011 elimination of the year-round Pell Grant program, a three-year experiment that allowed students to receive extra funds for summer school, may have contributed to the lower overall spending.

Future Pell spending?

Republicans have proposed cutting the maximum Pell Grant amount by $845, a move opposed by Democrats.  General federal budget issues, including the impending “fiscal cliff”, may put pressure on all education spending next year.  Adding in fickle student participation patterns makes it hard to predict future Pell spending.

“We’re often surprised by what is happening to the Pell Grant Program,” Hartle said, noting that its “recipients are prone to making unpredictable decisions.”

One definite change that may affect future payments is the cut to the maximum eligibility period for Pell Grants from eight to six years that took effect starting with the 2012-13 school year.

Related:  A roundup of pending federal college financial aid changes (Cost of College)

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