Leslie Cornfeld, founder and CEO of The National Education Equity Lab, whose model of instilling a … [+]
The National Education Equity Lab, a New York-based nonprofit, is partnering with many of our nation’s top colleges, including Princeton, Howard, Wharton, Arizona State University and Stanford, to turn low-income high-school students on to the possibility of succeeding in college, and in the process, it’s showing how the college pipeline can be stocked with talented students who would never have had the chance to demonstrate that talent but for the unique opportunity extended by the Ed Equity Lab.
The Ed Equity Lab’s ultimate mission is economic mobility, leveraging the power of “mobility engine colleges” to achieve a college-going culture in students at high schools in some of the poorest areas of the country. It was founded in 2019 by Leslie Cornfeld, a former federal civil rights prosecutor and later an advisor to both New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and two U.S. Secretaries of Education.
The model revolves around a deceptively simple, but ingenious, concept: it delivers and supports college credit-bearing courses taught by faculty from several of the nation’s leading colleges and universities in teacher-led high school classrooms, at no cost to students. The opportunity is provided to students in Title I high schools, those schools with high concentrations of low income students and students of color.
The Ed Equity Lab’s first offering in 2019 was a Harvard course, “Poetry in America: The City From Whitman to Hip-Hop,” taught online by Elisa New, the Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard, with Harvard teaching fellows meeting regularly with students live on Zoom.
Over 300 11th and 12th graders from 25 high-poverty high schools in 11 different cities enrolled. Of that first cohort completing the course, 89% passed and earned four widely transferable college credits. The Ed Equity Lab was on its way to realizing its vision of building a new, scalable model that would bring educational opportunity to students in the poorest high schools throughout America.
Since launching in 2019, the Lab has rapidly expanded, serving 180 high schools in over 90 school districts, reaching over 10,000 students by the end of this year. New York City has expanded from forty to over 100 high schools for next year; Miami-Dade has doubled its Ed Equity Lab high schools from 10 to 21. Other districts range from Chicago and Los Angeles to Flint Michigan, Jackson Mississippi, and Gallup New Mexico, serving a large Navajo population.
Its consortium of college partners has also grown and includes Stanford, Brown, Howard, Princeton, Barnard/Columbia, Wesleyan, Cornell and Georgetown Universities, Spelman College, Barnard College, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and Arizona State University.
Howard University’s president, Dr. Wayne Frederick, who serves on the Ed Equity Lab Board, said a key reason Howard helps lead this effort is because “it’s probably the most scalable opportunity that I’ve come across during my tenure at Howard …[and because students] join a community that is backing them and providing them with that confidence that is so key to their success.”
This year 17 different college credit bearing courses and supports were offered ranging from Wharton’s Personal Finance course, Stanford’s Introduction to Computer Science and College Writing courses, to Howard’s Criminal Justice and Barnard’s Intro to Economics courses. About 90% of participating students are minorities, and a majority would be the first in their families to attend college.
Cornfeld said that the model was designed for scale, combining asynchronous lectures with a system of supports from selected classroom teachers, teaching fellows and the Lab. She wants it to be in 25% of all Title I high schools within the next three years.
The Lab’s COO Alexandra Slack, a Harvard grad, former teacher and private sector consultant who was Cornfeld’s early partner in launching this model, explained: “Roughly 25% of all Title 1 high schools are concentrated in 40 low-income school districts, of which we’re serving almost half, and hope to reach all with this opportunity shortly, in addition to other urban and rural districts we’re inviting to join us. “
Venture capitalist Henry McCance, Chairman Emeritus of Greylock Partners, an early supporter and board member of the Lab’s, added, what “excited me most is that this nonprofit has the ability to scale in ways I haven’t seen before in my career.”
The Ed Equity Lab model involves a few basic elements. “We believe in keeping things simple,” says Slack. School districts are invited to participate, and they then nominate the specific schools where the courses will be offered. Principals pick the high school teachers who will assist the college faculty in offering the course, and they also select the students – typically about 25 per course. About half of Ed Equity Lab high schools now offer multiple courses – meaning students can graduate with a semester or more of widely transferable credits under their belts, resulting in substantial tuition savings.
Students – mostly juniors and seniors, but sometimes exceptional sophomores – are selected on the basis of their academic record. In part, that involves GPA, but it also allows for teachers to pick students they believe have untapped potential to succeed.
The courses are offered as dual enrollment classes – students receive both college and high school credit. They are staffed by 1) the college faculty member, who delivers the lectures asynchronously via video, and holds office hours via Zoom; 2) a high school teacher who co-teaches the course as part of his or her regular instructional duties; and 3) a university teaching fellow (graduate or undergraduate student), who functions like a college teaching assistant responsible for leading a weekly live discussion section and grading exams and other class requirements.
The Ed Equity Lab delivers and supports all aspects of the model, including onboarding schools and universities, conducting orientations and trainings for teachers and teaching fellows, and organizing virtual events, career and college advising sessions. There’s also an alumni society to build confidence and community among the scholars.
To date, 84% of students taking Equity Lab courses have completed them with a passing grade, making the courses eligible for transcripted credit at most colleges. Many students take – and pass – multiple classes, giving them a strong start on their college degrees.
According to Michaell Santos, who is president of the Ed Equity Lab Alumni Society and successfully took five Ed Equity Lab college courses before heading off to Yale in the fall, “the courses showed me what I was capable of outside my small South Bronx bubble and motivated me to apply to schools I wouldn’t have considered.”
You can watch a brief presentation of the Ed Equity Lab program model by Leslie Cornfeld and others and listen to some former students describe their experiences here.
More than half of Ed Equity Labs operating costs are covered by private foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, as well as other donations. The remainder of the revenue comes from the significantly discounted $250 per student per class that the local school district or state agrees to pay. Students take the courses at no cost to them or their families.
Cornfeld told me the Lab hopes to evolve that revenue model so that the cost per district remains low and dependence on philanthropy is reduced. “But we’re in start-up mode now, so outside philanthropic support is critical.”
Since the first cohort of students has only recently graduated, quantitative data on their college enrollment and success are limited, but the initial, anecdotal evidence looks promising. Equity Lab scholars have enrolled at Stanford, Wesleyan, Yale, Washington University, Howard, Columbia, SUNY, and Cornell among other outstanding schools, and the partnering colleges are increasingly using the program as a recruiting tool, focusing on students who’ve already proven they have what it takes to succeed in college.
Cornfeld is quick to attribute the Lab’s success to the powerful work done over the past decade in the early college space. “There is a robust evidence base on the impact of college in high school models that existed long before the Lab, and has inspired our efforts. What we did is simply ask ourselves, ‘how do we take the strongest parts of those models to scale, targeting students who rarely get these types of opportunities.’”
As Cornfeld notes, successfully completing the courses can become a new metric for college readiness, a particularly important signifier in an era where standardized tests are losing their luster as measures of merit, and high GPAs from low performing high schools carry little weight. “What better way to determine if a student is college ready, than to see how they did in an actual college course?” she says.
And Ed Equity Lab courses may also prove to be an effective counter to the problem of “under-matching” – where low-income students tend to avoid attending more academically rigorous colleges even though they would be just as likely to succeed at them as their peers from higher income backgrounds. The goal of the Equity Lab is to prepare students to attend the best-matched college for them.
While earning college credit from a leading college is a great tangible credential for students, the ultimate impact of the Ed Equity Lab is to be found in the psychological effect it has on students. Their classroom success creates a new mindset. It turns doubt into confidence, frustration into aspiration, and it helps undo the toxic impact of low expectations.
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the program “game changing” because it is helping to break what he calls the “belief deficit” that makes poor kids think that college isn’t for them. “That’s the genius of what this team is doing.”
Cornfeld is often quoted as saying “Talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not.” The National Education Equity Lab is beginning to upend that observation. By showing students that, no matter their background, a college education can be within their grasp, it has become a remarkably successful vehicle for promoting social and economic mobility.
Leslie Cornfeld, founder and CEO of The National Education Equity Lab, whose model of instilling a … [+]