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A Look at the Washington Post's Branded News

Susan Notes:

One more example of why consumers of newspaper items must be skeptical.

by Susan Ohanian

Although the Washington Post started putting up branded news on their homepage in 2013, it was a recent offering from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation appearing in my e-mail that got my attention. If you look up Washington Post Brand Connect, you learn this:

Brand Connect at The Washington Post is a platform that connects advertisers with The Washington Post audience. All content is developed and paid for by the advertiser. The Washington Post Newsroom is not involved in the creation of this content.

Other participants, called Partners, in this venture of branded news include: Airbnb, AMD, America's Natural Gas Alliance, Astrazeneca, AT&T, Audi, Bayer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. . . . BP, CIT, CITI, Conoco . . . and on and on. Everybody from the National Dairy Council to Raytheon to United Technologies has a message to sell to Washington Post readers.

Here's the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's latest "sell":

Data-driven support improves student completion rates at community college

John Carter is studying to become a firefighter and paramedic. He stopped attending school in 3rd grade and didn't return until age 19, when he started a recovery program to complete his high school education. Today, Carter, 24, is a community college student and volunteers with at-risk youth. He is excited to finish his training and start his career.

Colleges around the nation are working to improve student completion rates for increasing numbers of non-traditional students like Carter. They are doing this by using data to identify barriers -- and develop solutions -- to student attrition such as reforming developmental education and providing end-to-end academic advising.

Today, more than half of undergraduate students are 'independent': 24 years or older, responsible for their finances and possibly supporting dependents. The National Center for Education Statistics projects that non-traditional student enrollment in college will grow more than twice as fast as traditional age students by 2022.

When Carter was in 3rd grade, the school principal told his family he was struggling to read and would need to return to 2nd grade. "I felt worthless. Kids made fun of me, and the principal and teacher made me feel dumb. I told my mom, 'I would rather not live than go back.' She pulled me out of school, and we ran from the cops until I was 18."

When Carter decided to return to school at 19, his mother suffered from cancer and died that year. He forged on with his high school education and began his postsecondary studies at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, where he feels supported academically and professionally.

Community colleges have historically attracted more non-traditional students than four-year colleges. Sinclair, a two-year school with around 24,000 students, has closely tracked student academic and financial data since 2000 to improve its graduation rate and increase the number of degrees and certificates awarded yearly. Between 1999 and 2013, Sinclair saw a 75 percent increase in the number of students who earned degrees or certificates, transferred or were enrolled in good standing.

As the associate provost for student completion at Sinclair, Kathleen Cleary has a potential Sisyphean task: with a finite budget, increase graduation rates while maintaining high-caliber courses. The school's simple -- but-not-so-simple -- solution is to focus on students of all backgrounds and demographics, not just full-time students right out of high school, she said.

"Full and part-time students progress at different rates," Cleary said, "and it is difficult to compare students who take a term off to those who progress straight through, including summers."

Sinclair and other schools work with partners like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to adopt a research-based approach to these difficulties. In Sinclair's case, the partnership works to increase college completion rates through data-driven initiatives like Completion by Design, which identifies where and when schools are losing students, and provides strategies and supports to address those loss points.

"Planning with Completion by Design has allowed us to identify a number of areas of improvement for student completion," said Steven Johnson, president and CEO of Sinclair. "Through a full review of institutional policies and practices, we hope to remove barriers to student access, progression and completion."

Data collection and customized student support go hand in hand with Sinclair's My Academic Plan -- or MAP -- that students are expected to use each semester. Students can self-monitor their progress while advisors and professors access data and send alert messages for task completion or more support. In spring 2014, 87 percent of new students used the MAP. Data showed that students who use the system were two times more likely to graduate as those who did not.

Sinclair's data also pointed to a major roadblock to student success: on average, about 60 percent of its students have been referred to developmental education in the past two years, Cleary said. To quickly help students become college-ready, Sinclair collaborates with local high schools to provide developmental education before and during college and has retooled its own courses to better meet returning students' needs.

Ryan Hurst, 29, spent 11 years in the Marine Corps before starting college. To refresh his math skills, he enrolled in Sinclair's math academy to fill his academic gaps without a complete semester of study.

"I was out of school for so long and needed to refresh my skills, but I knew I didn't need to sit through entire classes," Hurst said. With this self-paced online course in a teacher-led classroom, he was able to address weak areas and skip the concepts he already knew. After six weeks, Hurst completed two math courses and received credit hours toward completing his degree.

The academy's success rates typically run about 5-10 percent higher for each course than traditional courses, Cleary said. Students who test into the lowest level of developmental math and participate in the academy and other refresher programs complete their entire sequence at more than double the rate of the traditional classes.

Sinclair also trains and supports faculty to better advise students and intervene proactively when needed. And all students participate in a mandatory orientation, an online academic plan and ongoing academic and career advising.

Carter said these supports at Sinclair "give you the opportunity and a second chance."

No author is listed and this piece is clearly labeled Sponsor-Generated Content By Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Although it is also labeled Published on September 28
WP BrandStudio
, as a digital subscriber to the Washington Post, I received it in my e-mail on Oct. 11, labeled Today's Headlines: The morning's most important stories, selected by Post editors. Other stories in this "most important" mix include:

  • "Deadly blasts in Turkey point to worsening instability"

  • Story of U.S. airstrike on hospital still missing details"

  • "Utley's slide breaks shortstop's leg and swings game to Dodgers"

  • "The fabulous world of Trump, where money is no problem."

  • Branded news gets delivered repeatedly.First delivered as "Today's Headlines" at 7:03 a.m., next this Gates item appeared in my e-mail at 11:56 a.m. as " "The Optimist: Stories that Inspire: highlights recent stories of success, ambition and pluck." Bill Gates pays, the newspaper delivers.

    In 2009, Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times also wrote about Sinclair Community College, pegging it as one of the best in the country: At Sinclair Community College Focus Is Jobs.

    Sinclair Community College, widely acclaimed as one of the best such colleges in the nation, is at the vanguard of such efforts. The college is retraining thousands of laid-off G.M., Delphi and other workers. It is also working closely with city, county and business leaders to identify and nurture growth industries and to train the workers those industries will need. In turn, many of its goals are being achieved with the help of generous local funding from taxpayers.

    Good for John Carter for getting some job training. Not-so-good for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for positioning this as a public school failure. I oppose retaining children in school but before I'd condemn John Carter's elementary school, I'd want to know a bit more about his mother's decade-long run from the cops with her kid in tow.

    And, for good or bad, let's recognize Sinclair College for what it is: Job training. Here's a statement from Completion by Design imperative:

    Faculty will begin by reviewing the top five enrolled programs to add structure, reduce excess credits, and align course sequences with employers and transfer institution needs.

    Employers in this country once offered training. Now they have pushed that off onto colleges.

    College was once a place offering education. Instead of "reducing credits," colleges required courses in general study--so that all students would encounter history, art, music, and science--because such encounters enrich peoples' lives. I attended a community college, where I was introduced to Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Mann, T. S. Eliot, Freud, Sacco and Vanzetti, Vincent Van Gogh, and metamorphic rocks. I played saxophone and clarinet in the dance band because my German professor, who directed the band, was desperate for a sax player. Although I grew up in a northern California area populated by Japanese fruit farmers, it was at community college that I learned about the Internment.

    And so on.

    But the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a longtime commitment to aligning such courses right out of the curriculum. They encourage course sequences to match up with employer needs, and until Plato is requested by the Business Roundtable. . . Take a look at the Gates contributions to Completion by Design:

    To: Ohio Association of Community Colleges
    Date: July 2015
    Purpose: to continue Ohio's Completion by Design state policy and scaling work led by the Ohio Association of Community Colleges
    Amount: $600,337

    To: Achieving the Dream, Inc.
    Date: February 2015
    Purpose: to support the adoption of Completion by Design principles and processes by amplifying lessons learned
    Amount: $850,000

    To: North Carolina Community College System
    Date: May 2013
    Purpose: to execute the role of state policy lead for Completion by Design in North Carolina
    Amount: $400,000

    To: Florida College System Foundation Inc.
    Date: March 2013
    Purpose: to drive catalytic policy priorities forward, as part of the Completion by Design initiative, intended to create more targeted student success mechanisms for Florida College System students
    Amount: $549,000

    To: Guilford Technical Community College
    Date: August 2012
    Purpose: to fund the implementation phase of Completion by Design for the North Carolina cadre
    Amount: $9,040,000

    To: Sinclair Community College
    Date: August 2012
    Purpose: to fund the implementation phase of Completion by Design for the Ohio cadre
    Amount: $9,044,063

    To: Miami Dade College
    Date: August 2012
    Purpose: to fund the implementation phase of Completion by Design for the Florida cadre
    Amount: $9,000,000

    To: The RP Group Inc.
    Date: June 2012
    Purpose: to provide technical assistance funding to RP Group for support planning and the initial implementation of this supprt for the implementation phase of Completion by Design
    Amount: $144,000

    To: WestEd
    Date: July 2011
    Purpose: to provide support as a Knowledge Management partner for the Completion by Design cadres
    Amount: $1,007,814

    To: Teachers College, Columbia University
    Date: June 2011
    Purpose: to establish CCRC as the lead data and analysis organization on the Completion by Design National Assistance Team
    Amount: $2,365,596

    To: Public Agenda Foundation, Inc.
    Date: June 2011
    Purpose: to lead the Completion by Design training and actionable research related to effective meeting facilitation and stakeholder engagement
    Amount: $520,460

    To: Sinclair Community College
    Date: April 2011
    Purpose: to fund the planning phase of Completion by Design for the Ohio cadre
    Amount: $645,000

    To: Guilford Technical Community College
    Date: April 2011
    Purpose: to fund the planning phase of Completion by Design for the North Carolina cadre
    Amount: $645,000

    To: Miami Dade College
    Date: April 2011
    Purpose: to fund the planning phase of Completion by Design for the Florida cadre
    Amount: $644,675

    To: Lone Star College System
    Date: April 2011
    Purpose: to fund the planning phase of Completion by Design for the Texas cadre
    Amount: $644,965

    To: Tides Center
    Date: October 2009
    Purpose: to improve the success and impact of the Completion by Design project with support, planning, and implementation of a technical assistance group providing expertise in community college reform implementation to the state-based intermediaries
    Amount: $4,104,654

    Note: Enter "Washington Post" into 'grants awarded' at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and you come up with ZERO. That's no surprising. The Washington Post is a commercial enterprise and the by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a business venture advertising their wares.

    Just don't read it as a news item.

    The Washington Post was the first major U.S. newspaper to open up its platform for brands to create and distribute content but sponsored content has also been a source of revenue and controversy for The Atlantic and BuzzFeed.

    In truth, the only difference I can see between this piece written for the Washington Post by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and New York Times ed items about whatever scheme the Foundation is pushing at the moment is that no education mouthpiece from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute was brought in to offer praise.

    — Susan Ohanian



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