SXSWedu 2017: Day 2 “Recap”

In which I try to recap 1.5% of an entire day of the SXSWedu conference in Austin, TX; an impossible task, thanks to the sheer number of sessions, panels, and just general awesomeness taking place.

Keynote: Sara Goldrick-Rab

PhD., Author of Paying the Price, Professor of Higher Education Policy and Sociology at Temple University, Founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, and in 2018, Director of the HOPE Center for College, Community, and Justice. Wears boots, but doesn’t want your number.

In under an hour, Dr. Goldrick-Rab made the case for SXSWedu attendees that the financial aid system — designed as a promise that so long as you work hard enough in school, you will be sent to college and will graduate with a degree or credential, regardless of the socioeconomic status of your parents and family — is broken. Almost irreversibly, which is why Dr. Goldrick-Rab wrote Paying the Price, and facilitated a study of 3,000 college students in Wisconsin to study the effects of financial aid on college success, as well as identifying the problems with the current financial aid system.

The Pell Grant doesn’t make college affordable anymore

In 1974, when the Pell Grant was first introduced, it was designed to cover 120% of the costs associated with college — in essence, you would not be on the hook for paying tuition and fees and it was acknowledged that there are “hidden costs” to going to college, and the grant was designed to cover some of those as well. But in 2013, the Pell Grant covered just 30% of the average tuition for 4-year schools in America. And 90% of all recipients of the Pell Grant have debt after graduation, despite the program’s initial purpose of preventing the most disadvantaged students from taking out loans altogether.

There are “hidden costs” to college

When a student applies for financial aid, the FAFSA determines their “estimated family contribution”. This wasn’t one of Dr. Goldrick-Rab’s stats, but I’m willing to bet that 9 out of every 10 applicants for financial aid have an EFC that is nowhere near the amount that you can actually spare.

But as she explained, that EFC is tremendously inaccurate when you acknowledge that for some families, they actually lose income when a student enrolls. Consider, for example, a 3-person family: a single parent, a college-aged student, and a younger sibling. That family’s EFC takes into consideration not only the parent’s income, but any income that the college-aged student makes as well. It wouldn’t be surprising or uncommon, however, for that college-aged student to be making a significant percentage of that family’s total income. The problem is, when they enroll, they’re not going to be working the same amount of hours (or, as Dr. Goldrick-Rab remarked, they shouldn’t be working those same amount of hours, if they want to actually succeed in school). And so that family’s total income actually decreases when a student enrolls, making their EFC an even larger portion of their earnings.

Colleges also get to make their own estimates for off-campus living expenses. This creates some strange anomalies — the New School in New York City, for instance, recently informed prospective students that the cost of living in NYC has actually decreased over the last five years.

College costs rise over time, for a variety of reasons

A student might enter college paying one amount, but could eventually need to pay even more. Often, it can be the “fault” of the student, because many families don’t realize that the FAFSA has to be re-filed every year in order to continue receiving aid. But sometimes, the student can’t be held responsible; state aid might run out, or the institution could decide to send more of its allotted aid to first-year students in an effort to boost enrollment for a particular year.

The most common reason a student loses access to their financial aid is by failing to meet the academic requirements year to year. But as Dr. Goldrick-Rab pointed out, we ask the most at-risk college students to meet requirements that are often much more rigorous than others. Many students’ grades fall short of the requirement in their first year of school, which can be a tremendous obstacle for anyone, let alone a first-generation college student. In one example from the study of Wisconsin college students, a young woman chose to take 18 credit hours in her first semester, in addition to working two jobs in order to avoid taking out any additional loans. Needless to say, her grades fell short of the requirement in her first semester and she was placed on academic probation. But without fully understanding what that meant, this student inferred that she had been expelled and so she did not register for classes in the following semester, and instead moved to Florida to live with her father.

It’s hard to get help in a crisis

24% of the students in the Wisconsin survey were “food-insecure” (e.g. their next meal was not guaranteed) and 16% of them could not pay rent. In fact, 13% of community-college students are homeless. The Pell Grant can’t make those problems go away or even provide any hope that they’ll get better, but that’s where outside agencies could step in to help students.

For instance, food banks and charities could award students with “food scholarships” — exactly what it sounds like, groceries in exchange for grades. The National School Lunch program could be expanded to higher education, too. And furthermore, if employers want a highly-educated workforce, they should be doing more to support their potential employees while they’re seeking degrees or certification.

Assorted notes:

  • First Degree for Free. ‘Nuff said.
  • “When high school was made free across America, we made a strong statement about the value of education.” It did not lower the motivation to complete high school, as many predicted, and in fact has contributed to higher graduation rates across the nation. ‘Nuff said.
  • Debt isn’t the problem; the problem is that the prices of college are so high that loans are no longer a choice, they’re just expected to be part of the equation.
  • 66% of the students in the Wisconsin study borrowed in their 1st year of college, but never got a degree or credential.

For more information about this session, visit my notes. And if you also attended this keynote, feel free to add your own thoughts. Everyone has the access to both view and edit that document.


Workshop: Are You a Neuroteacher… Yet?

The facilitators of this workshop came to us from the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning: Glenn Whitman, Director of CTTL, and Ian Kelleher, Head of Research. This was probably one of the most interactive and engaging workshops I attended all week, but you’d expect nothing else. “Do as I say, not as I do” is not a maxim either one of these educators would be caught saying.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m a real nerd when it comes to neuroscience. And I’ll admit, I’ve fallen victim to some of the recent failings of “pop psychology” books and trends, and I’ve probably promoted “neuromyths” over the years. But Whitman’s favorite word is “yet”, as tribute to Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindsets, and so I’ll just say it here: I’m not a mind, brain, and education expert… yet.

In the last decade or so, it’s widely agreed that we know more about the brain and the science of learning than at any other point in history. The real question for teachers: are we doing things differently as a result of this newfound understanding?

Mind, Brain, and Education (a rising program of study in universities like Harvard, for instance) is the intersection of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and educational theory. It’s basically my three favorite things to talk about, all rolled into one. (And if you’re wondering, no, I haven’t applied to HGSE’s program… yet. Instead, I chose to apply to Carnegie Mellon’s METALS program and was dutifully rejected.)

In order to apply the tenets of MBE to our teaching, educators have to realize that they can rewire brains. The discussion on brain plasticity has all but ended, and the results are clear: the brain reorganizes itself as a result of experiences, and there’s no single point at which this process stops happening.

I don’t think this quote can be attributed to Whitman or Kelleher, but this is the workshop where I first heard it: Educators should be “a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.” Be still, my beating heart.

For more information about this session, visit my notes. And if you also attended this workshop, feel free to add your own thoughts. Everyone has the access to both view and edit that document.


Workshop: Creating Podcasts Leads to Deeper Understanding

Full disclosure: I left this 2-hour workshop halfway through, but not because any of the presenters (Monica Brady-Myerov, of Listenwise, Emily Donahue, founder of KUT News in Austin and current Editor and Director of Journalism Sustainability for the station, and Michael Godsey, high school English teacher and creator of the popular series of extensive lesson plans for the Serial podcast) weren’t worth listening to. The second hour was the interactive part, and while I don’t have a podcast worthy of NPR-level attention, I do know my way around Audacity and GarageBand.

So the first half of the workshop was focused on the potential of podcasts to engage students in a way that more traditional forms of media cannot. Brady-Myerov pointed out early in the workshop that research has shown that students can listen to and comprehend material that is 2 entire grade levels above their actual reading level. This alone should convince teachers to make audiobooks and podcasts available to their students, even those who are just learning how to read, but it goes even further.

Because of the nature of some podcasts to tell an enthralling story, the brain is engaged in multiple ways while listening. Students are hearing, processing, and visualizing all at the same time… and that’s just considering the mere act of listening to any form of audio. When combined with stories and conversations based around particular topics of interest, you now have a powerhouse medium for engaging and content-based learning.

That’s what Godsey discovered when his high school students began listening to the Serial podcast in its first season. The multitude of skills and abilities that could be demonstrated just by listening to, analyzing, and creating their own content around the subjects introduced in the story of Adnan Syed is impressive, and Godsey harnessed this power for good, fortunately. His units of study can be found on TeachersPayTeachers, and now he’s doing his part to empower students across the nation to create their own Serial-level podcasts to tell stories of interest to them.

For more information about this session, visit my notes. And if you also attended this workshop, feel free to add your own thoughts. Everyone has the access to both view and edit that document.


Forum: What Does Ed Reform Look Like Post-Obama?

Bleh. That’s all I can say about this “forum”, which was in fact an opportunity for three charter school proponents to sit on a stage in front of a potentially-hostile audience and get pitched softball after softball by Richard Whitmire, author of The Bee Eater, the story of Michelle Rhee’s brutal reign over Washington D.C.’s schools.

Whether it was their intent to be politically correct and not address any of the fundamental issues that President Trump and a Betsy DeVos-helmed Education Department present to America, or if they were in fact pleased as punch to be living in a time where their plans to further privatize the public education system could be realized, I don’t really know.

All I know is, Eva Moskowitz (director of the Success Academy charter schools and photobomber-extraordinaire) didn’t succeed at making me feel sorry for her when she claimed that teacher’s unions have been “picking on her” for years. And she couldn’t convince me that the public education system in America is a monopoly, either, especially since she went on to point out that charter schools are, by definition, not subject to nearly as many regulations as public schools. And I certainly didn’t shudder with fear for the same reason as she did, when predicting that 100,000 more charter schools will open in the next 4 years and even that won’t be enough to satisfy the demand for them. No, I didn’t shudder with fear when she coolly remarked that there might not be enough “social entrepreneurs” to run all of them, because that might be the only thing slowing her down. This is the person who was rumored to be considered for Secretary of Education but wanted nothing to do with President Trump… until he chose Betsy DeVos. (It probably also had something to do with not wanting to take a $400k pay cut.)

I don’t have nearly as much to say about Nina Rees and John Katzman, who also attended this “forum”, but I will just say that at one point, Katzman said that charter schools are like women, because they receive just 70% of the funding as traditional public schools. I don’t know if this means that I’m now against gender-equality in the workforce, but… uh, whaaaaa? He also didn’t fully answer my question about the latest research coming out of states like Ohio, showing that charter schools have been tremendous failures, and instead said that the reports showed the exact opposite… somehow.

For more information about this session, visit my notes. And if you also attended this forum, feel free to add your own thoughts. Everyone has the access to both view and edit that document.


Forum: What ESSA Means to You

There’s not a lot to say about this forum, but my notes below have lots of resources and links if you’re looking to learn more. Kudos to the presenters, James Basham, Kevin Hager, Lindsay Jones, and Margaret McLeod, for their informative discussion.

For more information about this session, visit my notes. And if you also attended this forum, feel free to add your own thoughts. Everyone has the access to both view and edit that document.

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