Five Years Later: A Look at the Impact of the Fund’s Reports

Over the past five years, the Fund has created reports that examine the Baltimore City Public School system, hearing from more than 1,600 students, parents, teachers and community members and incorporating their ideas into recommendations for systemic improvements. We have issued reports on school choice, college readiness, community priorities, and our most recent focus – career & technical education (CTE).

The Fund’s independent, experience-based perspective coupled with a commitment to elevate student and family voices in these discussions results in practical, actionable recommendations. As we’ve written about previously, community perspectives are required to truly understand whether reforms are having their intended impact.”

Our reports have spurred the creation of new programs in and expansion of existing programs and resources to school communities in underserved parts of the city, which in turn has improved equity of access to rigorous academic offerings. Our recommendations are driving improvements. Here’s how:

City Speaks: Community Voices on Baltimore Schools (2014) documented our city-wide listening campaign that engaged 859 participants in defining priorities for City Schools. The wide ranging ideas heard in conversations across Baltimore City illustrated what Baltimore residents most wanted for students, including skilled teachers, welcoming school environments, more course offerings and enhanced preparation for college and career.

Impact: Our findings in City Speaks informed our future reports and brought to light the need to incorporate community perspectives into the work of the Fund and City Schools. The experiences and perspectives of those closest to schools (e.g., students, parents, educators, and community members) have driven the issues we have prioritized for analysis ever since.

Building a Bright Future: Understanding College Readiness in Baltimore City Public Schools (2015) examined college readiness in City Schools through focus groups with 225 students, recent graduates, and parents. Results showed that being prepared for college requires rigorous academic preparation, as well as support in social/emotional development, college guidance, and financial literacy. One of our key findings and recommendations: students needed more information and guidance, earlier in the process.

Impact: Building a Bright Future resulted in new programs, resources, and a reinvigorated commitment from the district to supporting college readiness.

  • We partnered with students to develop the Bmore Ready website, which provides guidance on the application process and financial considerations, along with reflections on unanticipated challenges many first-generation students and students of color face when they go to college. More than 1,600 students and families have used the site over the last two years.
  • Before this report, Advanced Placement (AP) course offerings were concentrated in a handful of primarily entrance criteria high schools. Our recommendation to expand access has supported the district’s push to offer AP in at least 25 schools. Most high schools now offer at least one AP course, and many offer several to their students.
  • The report helped drive improvements in access to Algebra I in 8th grade that support college preparation. Passing Algebra I in 8th grade is a key indicator of college readiness; City Schools has substantially increased access to more students and more schools with a focus on expanded access to African-American students.

Calculated Choices: Equity and Opportunity in Baltimore City Public Schools (2016) featured focus groups with more than 400 students and parents about the school choice process. We asked them what was important to them about a school and how they go about finding what is important to them. Discussions revealed that school choice in City Schools often felt like a black box to parents – the process is managed by the central office, but the information parents receive is largely dependent on communications from their child’s current school. We found that school choice, as implemented here in Baltimore City, amplified inequities: the majority of Gifted and Advanced Learning (GAL) classes were available primarily in more affluent communities. Aside from the academic benefit, GAL courses give students an advantage in selecting and being accepted to Baltimore’s top high schools. This inequity makes access to top high schools (and courses) more difficult for students experiencing poverty.

Impact: Recommendations in Calculated Choices have driven expanded access to opportunity and additional guidance throughout the choice process.

  • After our recommendation to expand GAL sites to more communities, the district did just that. More students and more communities, regardless of wealth, now have access to advanced and specialized courses.
  • The Ingenuity Project, which provides an advanced math and science program to middle and high school students in several schools, opened a new site in West Baltimore as a direct result of this report.
  • The Fund has offered school choice workshops, co-created with a school counselor and a City Schools parent, for the past two years. More than 250 parents and students participated in these workshops during the Fall 2018 choice season.

Broken Pathways: The Cracks in Career and Technical Education in Baltimore City Public Schools (2019), our most recent report, gives voice to more than 140 former CTE students who were promised “a leg up toward an in-demand, well-paid career.” Students’ experiences too often do not align with that promise. This report reveals an inflexible program lacking hands-on experiences and career advising, and makes practical recommendations for restructuring CTE to better support students.

Impact: As with all our reports, we have presented the findings to District and city leadership, and dozens of community partners, with more being scheduled. (You can schedule a briefing by contacting Sydneys@ffee.org). The district has been concurrently completing an internal audit of CTE during our production of this report. We look forward to opportunities to partner with them in developing solutions to the challenges identified in our report and the audit.

Interested in learning more? Contact us at info@ffee.org.

Our New Report on Career & Tech Ed in Baltimore City Public Schools Calls for Significant Restructuring to Improve Student Outcomes

While Baltimore City Public Schools describes career and technical education (CTE) as giving students “a leg up toward an in-demand, well-paid career,” students report struggling to navigate an inflexible program lacking promised hands-on experiences and career advising. Many who successfully complete CTE programs earn poverty-level wages six years after graduating from high school.

Those are just some of the conclusions in the report we released today: Broken Pathways: The Cracks in Career and Technical Education in Baltimore City Public Schools.

Reports produced by the Fund take an honest look at systems and issues with a significant impact on City School students’ access to an excellent education. Our goal is to shine a light on what works, what doesn’t and what is required to create the environment where all students can succeed. In the process, we bring student, family and community voices to policy discussions – enlisting their perspectives and sharing their ideas for progress.

Broken Pathways: The Cracks in Career and Technical Education in Baltimore City Public Schools is the product of individual interviews with almost 140 former CTE students and current teachers. The “bottom line” recommendation is that the district should restructure CTE in order to provide students with experiences and training that will lead to meaningful careers and wages.

Report Findings

More than 9,500 Baltimore City public high school students – 44% of the high school population – are enrolled in CTE. According to the district, CTE provides students with “rigorous academic courses and….work-based learning opportunities, including job shadowing, mentoring with industry professionals or internships.”

Yet, 67% of the students interviewed reported an annual salary of less than $12,200. A 2016 Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC) study we cite in Broken Pathways shows those who successfully complete a CTE program earn an annual median income of under $13,000 six years after high school graduation. 

Student and teacher voices in the report describe a program in need of an overhaul, with flawed implementation and structure.

Our interviews reveal that there is minimal career-related advising and little exposure to real-world work experiences. Often, students are illogically placed in CTE programs – sometimes ones in which they have no interest. Most students don’t earn the certifications required to obtain a related job – especially if their teacher leaves before the completion of the program. And students are often unable to transfer to different programs should they want to do so.

CTE teachers reported light course-loads (some only instruct 15-30 students a year), ineffective professional development, and uncertainty about the certification deadlines required to maintain teaching positions. Teachers also had challenges with funding allocations for materials, equipment, and out-of-school experiences.

The report provides a range of student stories that illustrate these concerns.

Report Recommendations

Broken Pathways: The Cracks in Career and Technical Education in Baltimore City Public Schools lists wide-ranging and practical recommendations rooted in student and teacher experiences.

  • The majority of Baltimore City Public School CTE programming should be located at two or three easily accessible centers. Students would take CTE classes at these centers and core academic classes at their home schools. This structure would give students access to all programs regardless of home school and enhance teacher collaboration while reducing the redundant finances required in a system with dozens of sites housing CTE programs.
  • In order to ensure students have the reading and math proficiency required for entry-level jobs aligned to specific CTE programs, establish clearly-defined program specific academic           prerequisites.
  •  Students should be given more than a single 45- or 72-minute period each day to master their CTE course material.
  • Each CTE center should have a team of work-based learning coordinators to match students with internships, as well as at least one counselor for every 250 students.
  • Stakeholders in local industries should review CTE curricula, advise on how to align instruction with industry practices, and advocate for programs connected to their industry.
  • Year-round, paid internships should be arranged for all CTE students via district partnership with Youthworks.

These recommendations have the potential to improve post-graduate outcomes for many of the students currently enrolled in CTE programs. If we are truly committed to preparing them for 21st century careers and personal success, then we must create programming that matches that commitment.

The full report is available here. Interested in learning more? Contact sydneys@ffee.org to set up a briefing on our findings and recommendations.

Education Reform: Elevating Student and Family Voices

We all know that educational reform is complex. Whether addressing enrollment, teacher recruitment, college readiness, literacy, school choice or the dozens of other issues facing Baltimore’s students, any change involves many people with many ideas and considerations.

Typically, conversations about improving some aspect of education for Baltimore’s students include school district leaders and representatives from educational nonprofits. Sometimes, funders and influencers are invited to provide perspectives. But in most cases, important people are missing from these conversations: the students and families who are most effected by – and who are the intended beneficiaries of – any improvement.

Students’ and families’ perspectives should be a part of any discussion about what will affect them. They belong in the conversations. By not including their thoughts on how to make the educational experience better, we push ideas onto them rather than finding solutions with them. We need to develop a system that reflects not just what we want (no matter how well-meaning we are), but what students and parents want. And we can only know that by asking and listening to them.

This is not a new thought. Many in Baltimore, from local educational nonprofits to the district itself, are working to engage with the families, students and communities impacted by decisions about their education. At the Fund for Educational Excellence, we’re speaking with communities about school choice, grade level reading, CTE programs and college readiness. Our Bmore Ready website was created by students, with the information that they consider important. Our School Choice Guide was created based on family feedback and with significant input from a parent. And our Grade Level Reading parent resources were created with significant input from parents. We’re hearing their recommendations and giving them voice. But we, and all of us, need to do more.

We recognize that not every decision in an 80,000-student school system can include everyone’s participation. But how and when we include students and communities in discussions – and doing so with intentionality – matters. It leads to better and more relevant decisions, greater understanding of why changes are being made, and easier buy-in.

How can we do this? To be truly collaborative, students and families need to be asked for input before decisions are made. Better yet, they should be at the table, in the discussion during the decision making process. And further, we need to change who the “deciders” are so that students and families are actively part of setting policy and making decisions.

This requires boldness. Unfortunately, reform has been too often based only on asking “what have other cities done?” and “is there evidence to support this approach?”. If used alone, those relevant and helpful questions risk perpetuating the pattern of relying only on the past to determine the future. It’s time we acknowledge that students and families have unique insight and deep passion that can impact positive change – and that those insights should be combined with evidence-based approaches for an inclusive and thoughtful path forward.

We all can do better. Next time we’re at a table where a decision is being made that affects people, let’s make sure those people are represented in the conversation. Next time we connect with students or families impacted by our work, let’s make sure we hear and understand their perspective, and do more listening than talking. Next time we are hiring, convening a committee or recruiting board members, let’s consider whether the experiences and insight our candidates bring reflects all of our constituents.

In doing so, our educational community will grow closer, stronger, and faster towards a system where every student from every community receives a fantastic education.

New MSDE Star System Overlooks Achievement Gap

On Tuesday December 4th the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) released the first iteration of its new school accountability, or “star ratings,” system as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). On the surface, understanding how schools are performing against a set of consistent measures seems reasonable. At its best, a school rating system helps parents know how their child’s school (or prospective school) is performing and how that compares to others in the county or state. Furthermore, a rating system has the potential to provide a useful roadmap to principals and teachers on how to improve their schools.

The problem is, as it ever has been, that rating education is complicated and nuanced. Rating systems almost never account for this complexity because a rating system almost always prioritizes the aggregate. Thus, any attempt to make a system “easy” ultimately misses important considerations. MSDE’s new accountability system is no exception – as has been shown in responses over the past two weeks.

I appreciate MSDE’s effort to share transparently the criteria being considered for the school ratings. These criteria include PARCC scores, chronic absenteeism, graduation rates, a well-rounded curriculum, and the achievement of English Language Learners – all important components of a quality education.

Yet, the most glaring omission from the criteria is any emphasis on decreasing the very-well documented and critically important student achievement gap that persists throughout the state of Maryland along racial and socioeconomic lines – two groups that unfortunately, in our unjust society, too often include the same children. State-wide results from the 2018 PARCC assessments show white students outperforming students of color by 19-39 percentage points in subject area tests. These gaps have remained relatively consistent for every administration of the PARCC assessment and show that across Maryland, black, brown, and poor students are not receiving the education they deserve. The new rating system fails to take into consideration or hold schools accountable for this persistent, disturbing gap.

One would think that in order to receive the highest possible rating on a tool created for the Every Student Succeeds Act, there must be evidence that every student is succeeding. This is not happening here; instead, the rating system gives schools with significant achievement gaps the chance to still receive the highest “5-star” ranking. One does not have to look hard to come across a highly respected 5-star high school in a nearby suburban school district where black students are lagging behind their white peers by 41 percentage points in Math and 29 percentage points in English. This is but one of many examples I found when looking more closely at the newly identified “5-star schools”. While this may be a 5-star school for some students, it is not for students of color. Reviewing this breakdown by poverty level is well worth exploring and sharing here, but MSDE does not yet share this data.

By omitting the achievement gap as a factor in its rating system, MSDE is allowing this school to mask the fact that some students are being served significantly better than others.

A rating system that fails to consider student data disaggregated by race and socio-economics perpetuates the incorrect notion that schools in places like Baltimore City and Prince George’s County—with significantly larger populations of black or brown students and substantially more concentrated poverty—are somehow worse. It also completely ignores the well documented negative effects of poverty on the education of children. Just as problematic, it misleads the parents of those children whose performance may not be accurately reflected in aggregated, school-wide data into believing that their child’s school is serving them well when there is often evidence to the contrary. It sends the message that Maryland considers schools “great” whether or not the achievement gap is being addressed.

It is disappointing that instead of proactively and boldly identifying the racial and economic achievement gaps we know exist in schools across every county in this state, Maryland developed a rating system that masks the problem and perpetuates racial and socioeconomic inequity.

At the Fund, we strive every day to improve the educational outcomes for children growing up in Baltimore City. It is important to understand how our city’s schools are performing—not just relatively (though I do look forward to the state fulfilling its responsibility to compare demographically like schools), but against objective measures as this rating system intends. I am not opposed to the idea of honestly examining how schools serve their students. But context matters. If, as a state, we are going to live up to the ideal that every student succeeds, we have to value the achievement of every student. This new rating system simply does not do that.

Impacting Education from all Angles

Expanding access to high quality learning and equitable opportunity for all students takes many forms. At the Fund for Educational Excellence, our unique role working with the Baltimore City Public Schools and our community’s students, families, funders and organizations allows us to take many approaches towards this work. We’re managing programs, matching philanthropic support to system priorities, researching issues with community input, and identifying resources for students and families based on community-identified needs. Here is a look at a few of many programs managed and/or created by the Fund to expand equity and opportunity for all students in Baltimore – what they are, how we help, and where they’re headed.

Chicago Parent Program:
The Chicago Parent Program (ChiPP), a nationally recognized 12-week program for parents with children ages two to seven, promotes good behavior and educational success for children through empowered parenting. With the support of trained facilitators and the ChiPP curriculum, groups of parents meet each week to discuss parenting techniques, participate in role-play parenting scenarios, share experiences and explore ways to better connect with their children and schools.

The Fund helped bring ChiPP to Baltimore four years ago as a pilot/research project in partnership with The Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, and is now directly managing the program in 11 City Schools. We have been thrilled by parents’ interest in the program. During the three-year pilot program, 65% of eligible parents in the targeted schools registered for ChiPP, a higher rate than in other cities across the country. This year, our programs are fully enrolled, with parents consistently reporting increased confidence in connecting with their child’s school and talking about their child’s behavior. To learn more about ChiPP, contact danielles@ffee.org.

School Choice Workshops:
In 2017, the Fund spoke with 400 City Schools parents and students about their experiences with the district’s school choice process – how students and families choose which middle and high school they would like to attend – for our Calculated Choices: Equity and Opportunity in Baltimore City Public Schools report.  One of the biggest concerns we heard from parents was a lack of clarity and support throughout the school choice process.

Last year, in collaboration with parents, we created a School Choice workshop that gives parents the information they need to navigate the often confusing school process. Any group of three of more parents, school representatives, or community organizations can request a workshop. We do the rest – delivering an immersive group workshop covering timelines, choices available, school rankings, composite scores and more. This year, our materials were translated into Spanish and we expanded our team of facilitators.

All workshop resources are also available online – find them here! To schedule a workshop in your community, email danielles@ffee.org.

Bmore Ready – College Readiness:
Created and managed by the Fund in response to a need identified by parents and families, Bmore Ready is a one-stop, online college readiness resource
designed specifically for City Schools students by the people who know the process best – City Schools graduates currently enrolled in college. The Bmore Ready website and workshops offer helpful information and first-hand video advice from recent graduates on how to identify, apply and transition to college. Bmore Ready is an outgrowth of the Fund’s conversations with families as part of its 2016 report on college readiness: Building a Bright Future; Understanding College Readiness in Baltimore City Public Schools.

This year, we’re emphasizing the importance of early preparation for the application process. Most importantly, we’re demystifying the often-cumbersome processes of applying for financial aid using the FAFSA (Free Application For Federal Student Aid) forms. We will be working as one of City Schools partners, helping to support and get the word out about upcoming drop-in FAFSA fill-out sessions for students and families. Stay tuned as the sessions get scheduled! FAFSA applications are due March 1, 2019!

If you’re interested in learning more, getting involved or staying in the loop as we move these initiatives forward, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, or email info@ffee.org to continue the conversation!