Education Opinion

Nick Ehrmann, CEO and Founder, Blue Engine

By Sara Mead — May 08, 2012 14 min read
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“College and Career-Ready” is the catch word in education policy these days. But, even as increasing numbers of students are going to college, far too few are prepared to succeed there. Nick Ehrmann founded Blue Engine in an effort to solve this problem. Blue Engine recruits, trains, and supports recent college graduates to work with students and teachers in public high schools, reducing student: instructor ratios to customize learning and help students master advanced academic skills for high school and college success. Launched in 2010, Blue Engine has already gained national recognition from the Clinton Global Initative, Blue Ridge Foundation of New York, Echoing Green, and other major organizations supporting social entrepreneurship and education reform.

Blue Engine is informed by Ehrmann’s experience as both a teacher and a researcher. As a Teach for America Corps Member in Washington, D.C., he founded Project 312, which raised over $1 million to support his students through high school to college. Later, as a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton, he became concerned that such efforts were insufficient to truly equip students to succeed in college, and founded Blue Engine in an effort to change this. Ehrmann was raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, and holds a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University and a Ph.D. from Princeton. He lives in New York City with his wife and 1-year-old son.

Read the whole thing.

What’s your “elevator pitch” for Blue Engine?
In schools and communities all across the country, we do a great job selling students on the dream of college without preparing them to succeed once they get there. This disconnect between what it means to be college “eligible” vs. college ready has quickly gained traction as one of our nation’s most prominent and agonizing challenges. The chatter about “college readiness” conceals two additional problems: Educators don’t agree on what “readiness” means, and policymakers are NOT currently focusing attention on the most important “root cause” of success in higher education-- expanded academic rigor in high school.

Blue Engine is a hypothesis, a response to two main questions: How would we, as a sector, a district, a country, help make high schools more academically rigorous places to live and learn? And how would we do this not just for a handful of kids, but for critical masses? Blue Engine’s central insight, borrowed from programs like the MATCH corps in Boston and national service traditions dating back decades, explores whether a new national service model might help combat this cycle of college under-preparedness at scale? Whereas other programs recruit teachers or train volunteers--or throw up their hands by the time high school comes along because it’s “too late"--Blue Engine assembles teams of Blue Engine Teaching Assistants (BETAs), recent college graduates who partner with classroom teachers to increase academic rigor in high schools serving low income communities.

Here’s how it (currently) works. Working 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. alongside classroom teachers, BETAs dramatically reduce instructor-to-student ratios (from 1:30 to 1:6 on average) and customize instruction--in style, content, and pacing--to small groups of students. The small group structure is key, designed to “chop up the bell curve” and transform the traditional classroom into an intimate setting where students build empowering relationships with BETAs and feel comfortable pushing the boundaries of their potential. Think of it as 4 mini-classrooms happening at the same time, with BETAS (who work for $14,400 per year, by the way) taking responsibility for tailoring instruction and feedback to the needs of individual students in real time. This happens for 2 straight years in mathematics and literacy (9th and 10th grades, 120 minutes per day of small group instruction). Over time, Blue Engine remains in individual school buildings, layering services across a 4-year whole-school model that creates upward pressure on rigor and helps students transition successfully to higher education without the need for remediation.

Why did you decide to create Blue Engine?
My first job out of college was working as a fourth-grade teacher with Teach for America in Washington, D.C. During my second year, I raised commitments upward of $1 million to found Project 312, a chapter of the I Have A Dream Foundation that would provide my students with a 10-year program of tutoring, mentoring, and guaranteed tuition assistance for higher education. At the time, it felt like the embodiment of what Teach For America was all about--closing opportunity gaps in one of America’s toughest communities through hard work, perseverance, and a relentless focus on the possible. In my eyes, I had succeeded. I had closed the gap.

But there is more to this story.

After Teacher for America I went to Princeton to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology.
In 2006 I decide to begin a three-year ethnographic study that would explore the connection between educational expectations and achievement during high school. I fully expected to write about what Project 312 got right. So I tracked down a comparison group (Room 308) and returned to Washington to shadow my former students in their classrooms, live alongside their families, and conduct extensive interviews in the local community.

In 2008, while analyzing the results, I discovered something shocking: Over the six years since Project 312 launched, we had produced no impact whatsoever on academic achievement. None.

Over four semesters of high school, grade point averages (GPAs) for Project 312 students equaled 1.78 compared to 1.82 for Room 308. Other measures told a similar story. The percentage of course credits passed for 312 students compared to 308: 72% vs. 73%. Courses failed or nearly failed: 42% vs. 47%. Absences per year: 49.5 vs. 43.2. The average GPA for the entire group? A sobering 1.44, hardly the stuff that dreams are made of.

Our investment had been big. Thousands of hours of tutoring, mentoring, and family outreach. Late night calls. Early morning trips. Difficult conversations. College visits. Letters to judges, admissions officers, and parents. Inspiring moments, including a promise of guaranteed college scholarships faithfully kept. And over the past six years, Project 312 helped our students achieve a deficit of four-hundredths of a grade point.

The bulk of students, with their barely passing grades, were racking up credits at a clip sufficient to graduate from high school and apply to colleges with low admissions standards. Everywhere I looked, achievement measures were identical, with one glaring exception: Project 312 students reported much greater confidence that college was a part of their futures. In survey after survey, they expressed greater levels of certainty than Room 308 students that they would enroll in higher education and complete their degrees.

Looking at the numbers, I felt a combination of disappointment and intense curiosity. Expectations were soaring yet achievement had bottomed out. There was more to this story. It almost seemed like our students were slacking off deliberately.

I learned that researchers label this discrepancy between high expectations and low achievement the “attitude achievement paradox,” a phenomenon where hopes and reality go in different directions. There are many theories for why this happens, but nobody knows for sure. I began my dissertation research hoping for evidence that students from Project 312 were achieving at high levels, but eight years after I started teaching I was staring at evidence that we had failed.

Over the coming year, my final year in graduate school, I started looking for answers in a new way. I stopped asking people to complete surveys and started paying attention to what students were actually doing. I kept quiet. I listened. I embedded myself in their routines, shadowing students like Travis and Janee and Shaveem around the clock. I didn’t know what I was looking for, exactly, but I knew I was tackling one of the most urgent and unsolved puzzles in education research. I discovered that conscious, strategic underperformance was the most logical and expedient thing students were doing in a system that was encouraging “Dreamers” to measure success by whether they graduated from high school and enrolled in college.

This would take a long time to piece together, but by revealing that underperformance in high school is something logical (as opposed to pathological), the “attitude-achievement paradox” in Room 312 become less a puzzling feature of a broken system and more a piece of evidence that our schools are producing exactly what they’ve been designed to produce: college dropouts from coast to coast.

That’s the problem we need to fix.

Blue Engine exists because millions of students enter high school each year with an incomplete awareness of their academic potential and the curricular routes and roles required to push the boundaries of their thinking over the next four years.

This is not about philanthropists helping ‘save’ kids or helping them reach certain destinations in life. This is about ensuring (at the very least) that our interventions are not part of the problem, making sure that students are armed with the self-awareness, cognitive ability, and habits of excellence that lead to healthy and productive lives.

Is Blue Engine the answer to this problem? No way. It’s too massive. It requires coordination at too many levels of policy and practice. It requires a different way of structuring schools and classrooms. It requires new forms of human capital, greater support for teachers, and a clear-eyed understanding of the ways our current system is setup to fail.

Our first priority is proving this works on a small scale, in single classrooms, serving some of our country’s most underserved kids, proving that academic acceleration can be dramatic over the course of a single year. Everything else flows from there.

What are your biggest successes to date?
We’ve only been around since 2010, but we’ve had some meaningful successes to date. Recent college graduates applying to join us as BETAs is a victory in itself. In 2012 we had 310 applicants, competing for 30 spots in New York come fall. Moreover, our people want to stay. Fourteen of our 18 first year BETAS applied to return for a 2nd year. We made 10 offers, and 10 accepted. We’re building something that people want to be a part of.

We’re most proud of the amount of academic acceleration we saw in Year One. During the 2010-2011 school year, our first program year, Blue Engine placed 12 BETAs in 8th and 9th grade Integrated Algebra classrooms at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) in New York City. Our partnership contributed to significant improvements in “college-ready” performance on the June 2011 Integrated Algebra Regents Exams. Forty-three percent of 9th graders at WHEELS demonstrated college-ready math skills on the exam, a near tripling of the proportion of 9th graders who reached this bar the prior year (15%). This in turn created upward pressure on academic rigor by doubling the expected enrollment among in Geometry this school year (year two of our WHEELS partnership) because more students are prepared for the demands of rigorous Geometry coursework. These students are now one step closer to advanced mathematics courses (Algebra II, Trigonometry, Calculus, and Statistics) that rank among the strongest predictors of college success.

Finally, a number of supporters are rallying behind this work: the Blue Ridge Foundation, Echoing Green, Robin Hood Foundation, and Draper Richards Kaplan.

What are the biggest challenges you face?
The first immediate challenge is programmatic. This year, our BETA corps expanded from 12 to 28, working in three subject areas across three school sites. Satisfaction and team functioning remain high across the organization, but program implementation at the classroom level has been uneven. Our Board has unanimously recommended prioritizing programmatic clarity ahead of aggressive growth. Over the next 2-3 years, expansion will remain hypothesis-driven in 6-10 New York City high schools, with a premium placed on performance management as well as annual program and process evaluations. Despite growing interest in our model, we have no plans to expand regionally or nationally until our model has been well designed, well implemented, and aligned to a measurable and fully-operationalized Theory of Change.

The second immediate challenge is financial. Our financial model was built with the intention to raise revenue from three distinct sources: a fee for service paid by schools, private philanthropy, and AmeriCorps, which helps offset the total cost of our BETAs’ stipends, health care, and education awards. While we are confident that both Fee for Service and private philanthropy are sustainable and scalable revenue streams in the medium term, given the uncertainty of the federal budget-making process and planned reductions in spending, we are concerned that we will not be able to rely on AmeriCorps to maintain its share of BETA costs as we grow. The challenge is developing a model that could conceivably withstand the elimination of AmeriCorps, and we’re working hard to keep focused on program while imagining what success might look like (sustainably) on the revenue front.

What do you see as the biggest problem or challenge in public education today?
Measuring success by whether students get into college or not. There’s a massive difference between what it means to be “college eligible” vs. “college ready” and although educators know this, it hasn’t fully registered in the minds of students. We’re sending them over a cliff.

Students like Travis, who I taught in fourth and fifth grade, are the product of these failed systems. The son of a hard-working single mother (his father was murdered when Travis was young), Travis passed all of his classes, attended school regularly, and obtained his diploma in the spring of 2009 with college acceptance letters in hand--quite an accomplishment in a city [Washington, D.C.] where less than 40% of African American males finish high school. But, like millions of students, Travis encountered massive obstacles his freshman year. He was assigned to remedial courses in reading comprehension, writing, and basic math that didn’t count towards his degree. By the middle of the semester, Travis was having trouble seeing the point. He had transplanted himself to the middle of Pennsylvania with ten thousand dollars in debt for the opportunity to earn a handful of credits. After his first semester, Travis quietly dropped out of school and returned to D.C. to look for work.

The increasing pressure to send more young people to college has both revealed and exacerbated a deeper structural problem: Students entering two- and four-year colleges lacking basic literacy and math skills that should have been mastered prior to graduation.

In June 2011, New York State Education Department data showed that only 21% of New York City students who entered a public high school in 2006 were prepared for college when they left four years later. Just 14% of high schools in NYC graduated classes in which at least one-third of students were prepared for college. College readiness rates are particularly low among minority students: only 13% of black students and 15% of Latino/a students in New York State were deemed college ready, compared with 51% of white graduates and 56% of Asian-American graduates.Everywhere you look it’s the same story- we’re rubber-stamping diplomas and shuttling kids off to postsecondary education without the skills they need to succeed. This is madness.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?
I hope I’m running Blue Engine. I hope I’m surrounded by people who challenge me. I hope we’re working in partnership with hundreds of high schools across the country. I hope we’re inspiring thousands of Americans to devote year(s) of their lives to serving our schools in a new way.

We say this all the time, but we must earn the right to do this work. We have a single year of results, with evidence in Algebra that’s compelling but not conclusive. We have no data in literacy whatsoever. No data in Geometry. No data from our 2nd and 3rd partner schools. And a financial model that’s unproven. The challenges feel daunting, but I feel like we’re working on an important problem.

Who are some individuals you admire in the education field, or individuals you admire in other fields whose examples shape your work in education?
I admire people who help me understand the world better - who reveal things that are surprising, who help me abandon illusions, and connect differently to people and the world around me.

I’m drawn to writers in particular - Elliot Liebow (Tally’s Corner) comes to mind. So does Carol Stack. Michael Lewis. Daniel Khaneman. Atul Gawande.

At Blue Ridge, Draper Richards, and Echoing Green I’m surrounded by incredible entrepreneurs. These are people who assemble new ideas with duct tape and hangers until it becomes something recognizable, or - even better - something unrecognizable.
Through some combustible process, entrepreneurs help change the way people perceive the world and what’s possible here.

Who’s inspiring? Sara Horowitz (Freelancers Union). Josh Nesbit (Medic Mobile). Cheryl Dorsey (Echoing Green). Andy Dunn (Bonobos). There’s a long list.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.