An Interview with the U.S. Department of Education’s Greg Darnieder
By Rob Gira, Executive Vice President, AVID Center
A couple of weeks ago, Greg Darnieder, Senior Advisor to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, met with a group of AVID Center staff to discuss a number of issues. Naturally, college readiness and degree attainment, especially for underserved students, were paramount topics. Shortly after that meeting, President Obama made his State of the Union Address, which, of course, has implications for our work. Some of our AVID alums responded immediately to the President.
Darnieder is a long-time advocate for children, especially those in challenging circumstances. He is a former middle school teacher who then directed programs for the Cabrini-Greens Housing Developments in Chicago, served as executive director of the I Have a Dream Foundation in that city, and launched several non-profits as well. Darnieder then assumed leadership in Chicago Public Schools, establishing the Office of Postsecondary Education, when Duncan became the Chief Executive Officer. Under their leadership, Chicago moved college readiness metrics considerably in the right direction. Not surprisingly, AVID was implemented effectively in CPS on their watch and we learned a great deal from working with them, especially about the need for strong systems at the district level.
In 2008, Darnieder joined Duncan at the U.S. Department of Education as his Senior Advisor. In this role, Darnieder has been instrumental in the implementation of the U.S. Department of Education’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Completion Project, which aimed to assist local educational agencies (LEAs) and secondary school administrators in determining which of their students have completed a FAFSA form for the possible upcoming school year. The pilot project provided principals, counselors and college access professionals across 100 participating school districts with information to use in increasing FAFSA completion among their student population. Evaluation data has indicated that FAFSA completion promotes college enrollment, particularly among low-income populations.
Every other week the U.S. Department of Education posts the raw number of completed FAFSA forms by high school. If you Google FAFSA Completion by High School you can look up the high schools you’re interested in seeing.
I am an occasional participant in Darnieder’s College Access Affinity Group, through which Darnieder and his team have hosted numerous college readiness sessions online. I have been particularly interested in the FAFSA information, financial literacy, and presentations on district approaches to college readiness, as well as information on new research publications.
The U.S. Department of Education is, of course, charged with carrying out President Obama’s call to action, that the U.S. regain its position as first in the world in degree attainment. In his first joint address to Congress on February 24, 2009, President Obama set a goal that the nation should once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020. To reach this goal, the U.S. Department of Education projects that the proportion of college graduates in the U.S. will need to increase by 50 percent nationwide by the end of the decade. Lumina Foundation has also taken a strong stance on degree attainment. Their Goal 2025 is to reach the goal of 60% higher education attainment (the same as the President’s but five years longer).
We have some stretching to do.
Duncan and Darnieder, it seems, are not in DC much. They are often traveling the U.S., looking for pockets of educational excellence. Their travels allow them to identify best practices and to inform the discussion at the national level. When we met, Darnieder had just come from a meeting with superintendents in Riverside, one of the strongest AVID regions in the world.
With First Lady Michelle Obama now adding her voice to the call to action, it seemed appropriate to ask Greg Darnieder to revisit the national imperative around degree attainment as well as college career readiness overall.
Gira: In Chicago, you developed a solid system for postsecondary access and success. What did you do, what were the results, and what did you learn?
Darnieder: We viewed that challenge as “how do you create a system for secondary school students,” meaning we wanted something that spanned from at least sixth grade into the first year of postsecondary. We thought about what strategies should be included in five key areas: 1) academic rigor, 2) non-cognitive, 3) the role of school counselors, 4) how to leverage resources from the federal government, state government, and private sector, and 5) how to prepare Chicago students, for success in postsecondary education.
We also made a decision to use data from both the student information system of Chicago schools and outside data sets that would not be influenced by Chicago Public Schools staff. As a result, the National Student Clearinghouse, the state’s labor market data, college course records, and eventually FAFSA all became critical to measuring outcomes achieved by our students.
In our findings, we found college enrollment had increased from 43% to 59% between 2004 and 2009. In other words: by 2009 we had approximately 4,000 additional students going on to postsecondary education—all of whom were African American or Latino and a vast majority of whom were first generation college-goers. We also piloted, for the country, the confirmation of FAFSA submissions by student name.
A couple lessons were learned, the first that it is possible for school districts to create significant differences in student outcomes related to college access. Another lesson was that school districts are in a unique position to create structures in which community resources can be brought to support the specific goals of the school district. When school districts utilize community resources they increase the confidence of investing business, civic, and faith-based organizations, ensuring that their resources will be maximized to the highest extent.
Gira: You have been championing a FAFSA project nationally, working with some key pilot districts. But you have been very clear that financial literacy overall is an even greater imperative. What is motivating you to focus on these areas?
Darnieder: In the past few years we have typically had over a million students graduating from high school who did not fill out the FAFSA form—many of whom would have qualified for the Pell grant and, in all likelihood, would have qualified for a state grant. However, these students missed out on those opportunities because they didn’t fill out the form in a timely manner. For low-income students this is important because filling out the FAFSA is a make-it-or-break-it factor in whether or not the young person will go to college.
One thing that has become evident is that we have a low financial-literacy level in this country. This issue even persists amongst social class levels. There is a huge challenge centered on educating American citizens in the use of their finances. Part of what motivates me is the personal stories I’ve heard on the road. Some of these stories are of people who make decisions to take on huge amounts of debt that they sometimes will not be able to get out of in their entire lives. Other stories are about families not having the resources for attending a higher education institution. Financial decisions play a crucial role in the choice to attend one institution over another and in the amounts of debt one chooses to take on.
Gira: You and Secretary Duncan get to see a lot of good work in the field. What are some best practices you have observed around college and career readiness?
Darnieder: One of the exciting things about my job is that I have had the opportunity to travel to just about every state in the country. I get the opportunity to interact with educational leaders and nonprofit college access communities from all over.
I’ve learned that there is exciting work going on from one end of the country to the other. One example comes from visiting rural Kentucky and learning about a simple change in board policy where a school board changed its policy around field trips, so that—starting in 2nd grade—teachers who want to take their students on field trips, regardless of the occasion, must include a visit to a postsecondary institution in order to gain approval. Small, simple changes like this are easy to make and create a huge impact.
In my trip down to Brownsville, TX I found GEAR UP investments being made in the use of technology in math classes. High schools are sending their math teachers to six week summer workshops at Harvard while those professors visit their schools during the school year to see how technology is being used for individualized instruction.
There is significant work across the country coming together under a theory of change called Collective Impact, where communities come together around a set of academic outcomes that usually includes college graduation. With Collective Impact, hundreds of communities are organizing around college and career readiness outcomes. More specifically, the state of Michigan has over 50 separate areas organized around a Common Dashboard—focused on college completion, ACT scores, remedial and persistency rates, FAFSA completions, as well as graduation rates. With that said, over half the geographic area of Michigan is organized around these community metrics.
Gira: What are you hearing about AVID?
Darnieder: There are only two programs that get mentioned to me in an unsolicited manner, in terms of being impactful in schools. One of those two programs is AVID. It is quite wonderful to walk into a school, listen to the school’s story, and hear about how AVID is making a powerful difference in the lives of young people.
Everyone who is affiliated with AVID should be applauded for their work. It is recognizable, appreciated, and admired by school administrators, students, and parents throughout the country.
Gira: You are a strong believer in the power of school counselors in moving us forward as a nation as far as college and career readiness. What are some powerful examples you are seeing, and what are the challenges?
Darnieder: College Board has had a campaign over the past few years called ‘Own the Turf’, in which they challenged counselors to step up and own certain data points related to college and career-readiness. The campaign has had close to 15,000 counselors participate. There is a growing sense in the college counselor community that they need to increase their knowledge base around college and career readiness. Organizations like SREB (Southern regional Education Board) have created classes that counselors can take—mostly online—to improve their skills. Counselors have embraced this opportunity in powerful ways around key postsecondary readiness metrics—anywhere from organizing community volunteers to assist students with their FAFSA forms to working during the summer to focus on students who have started the FAFSA, but didn’t complete it. There is also some interesting work that utilizes texting to get college students on track and informed on the college application process.
Gira: In our discussion, you touched on the need for attainment of certificates and professional authorization, not just a four-year degree. Why are you seeing things this way?
Darnieder: It is my understanding that there are 440 school counseling programs in the country. About half are certified by CACREP; of those 440 programs only a handful actually offers a concentration of courses on college and career readiness. We have school counselors who are coming through these programs without thorough training. Some postsecondary schools, like Johns Hopkins and several Cal State Campuses, have begun to implement curriculum, into either their counselor’s programs or as a certificate, that can be earned after a masters in school counseling. There is a lot of energy across the country directed towards the importance of recognizing the CCR knowledge gap in the preK-12 system. Work is underway to formalize such training so that school counselors can be recognized as having a credential in college and career readiness. There is growing interest from a number of universities, educators, and administrators in filing this gap which is very encouraging.