December 2019
  • QuotED in 2019: The 19 Quotes About Schools and American Education That Made Us Laugh, Cry and Ponder This Year

    By Andrew Brownstein | December 22, 2019

    Updated Dec. 23

    Nationally, the news of 2019 was dominated by the seemingly endless presidential campaign and the highly partisan debate over whether to impeach President Trump. Education often struggled to find a voice. But outside the Beltway, school news dominated the headlines. Chicago reckoned with a school sexual misconduct scandal that spanned more than a decade. The Palm Beach, Florida, school district fired a principal who denied the reality of the Holocaust. And all over the U.S., from a state takeover of schools in Providence, Rhode Island, to a district secession battle in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, schools wrestled with the legacy of generations of inequity.

    These historic moments (and, yes, a gaffe or two) are captured regularly in QuotED, a roundup of the most notable quotes behind America’s top education headlines — all taken from our regular EduClips series, which regularly spotlights important headlines you may have missed from America’s 15 largest school districts.

    Here are a few of our favorite education quotes from 2019:

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    “Lunch should be lunch, which should not be somewhere between breakfast and lunch.” —New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, on a Daily News analysis showing that many city schools offer “lunch” long before 11 a.m. (Read at the New York Daily News)

    “Rich kids go to therapy, poor kids go to jail.” —Melivia Mujica, a student activist in San Antonio. (Read at

    “Let’s just say my phone has rung a lot.” —American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, on interest from the field of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls in courting the union vote. (Read at U.S. News and World Report)

    “[The superintendent] came to me in a panic because he had been accosted by prominent, wealthy alumni of the school who were Mr. Trump’s friends. … He said, ‘You need to go grab that record and deliver it to me because I need to deliver it to them.’” —Evan Jones, former headmaster of the New York Military Academy, on attempts to conceal the high school academic records of President Donald Trump. (Read at The Washington Post)

    Heather Martin

    “Well, you know, I’m going to die in here and I’m a virgin and I will have never met Bruce Springsteen.” —Heather Martin, recalling what she told a friend over 20 years ago as two gunmen terrorized Columbine High School. Today, she teaches high school English in nearby Aurora, Colorado. (Read at

    “Adult misconduct is surely not acceptable, but, holy crap, we have a lot of work to do in terms of student behavior against other students.” —Chicago teachers union president Jesse Sharkey, on 900 sexual misconduct cases being logged in the district over the course of four months, mostly students reporting on other students. (Read at Chalkbeat)

    “When it was us, the district didn’t feel like they needed to have any immediacy. We don’t have the resources that SLA has, and their parents jumped on it right away. Where there’s money and influence, there’s more privilege.” —Keith Pretlow, a culinary-arts teacher at Ben Franklin High School in Philadelphia. When Science Leadership Academy, a magnet school, relocated to share the site with Ben Franklin, a long-delayed asbestos cleanup moved into high gear. (Read at The Philadelphia Inquirer)

    “Even though you might be scared, you never turn down a story, and it taught me you never know what’s going to happen.” —Amelia Poor, 13, one of 45 students who form the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps that writes for Scholastic’s classroom magazine. Despite her fear of canines, she successfully covered a recent Westminster Dog Show. (Read at

    Five student journalists interview Ziauddin Yousafzai at Scholastic headquarters in Manhattan on June 11, 2019. (Kate Stringer)

    “We’re taught to live in the present. Right now, my children are healthy.” —Melissa (last name withheld), who said her Buddhist views prevented her from vaccinating her children unless they became very sick, and one of several parents who successfully sued Rockland County, New York, to overturn a measure that barred unvaccinated children from attending schools. (Read at The New York Times)

    “I work 55 hours a week, have 12 years’ experience and make $43K. I worry and stress daily about my classroom prep work and kids. I am a fool to do this job.” —A teacher in an online focus group, quoted in this year’s PDK survey of American teachers. More than half said they had seriously considered quitting in recent years. (Read at

    “Education reform isn’t a cure-all. As a supporter of education reform, I agree that fixing educational inequality requires doing more to address the broader, systemic sources of economic inequality.” —Former President Barack Obama. (Read on Twitter)

    “Education clearly has not been at the top of his list of priorities to address directly. But he has been very supportive of all the work that we have done.” —Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, on President Trump’s policy priorities. (Read at Politics K-12)

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    “Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.” —Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. (Read at Politics K-12)

    “It just becomes like a ghost town.” —Jack Thompson, superintendent of the Perry, Ohio, school district, on what would happen if a nuclear plant there closes. Experts warn that half of the nation’s 59 nuclear plants could close by 2030. (Read at

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    “I can’t say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event.” —William Latson, former principal of Spanish River High School in Florida. This year’s revelation of his 2018 comments in a local newspaper sparked international outrage and ultimately led the Palm Beach County Schools to fire him. (Read at The Palm Beach Post)

    “Anyone who does what we do knows it’s happened not by chance but by deliberate choice by those who embrace and embark on this work.” —Alberto Carvalho, Miami-Dade superintendent, on the district getting an A grade from the state education department two years in a row. (Read at the Miami Herald)

    Long Farm Village and nearby affluent neighborhoods are looking to secede from East Baton Rouge and its district, leaving behind impoverished areas not yet recovered from catastrophic flooding and lacking needed resources for their schools. (Beth Hawkins)

    “Schools in north Baton Rouge for 100 years have been getting less. I firmly believe the St. George movement is rooted in racism. Look at the boundaries. You go down Florida Boulevard and it’s like the Mason-Dixon line. South of Florida, it’s white; north, it’s black.” —Tramelle Howard, a new member of the school board in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, which is facing a secession attempt from a mostly white and affluent enclave. (Read at

    “Since when did real estate agents become experts on schools?” —Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center, who served as a consultant on Newsday’s three-year investigation that uncovered widespread evidence of unequal treatment by real estate agents on Long Island. (Read at Newsday)

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    “For the past two days, I have felt like I have been kicked in the sternum by Godzilla wearing steel-toed boots.” —Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro, on a scathing report from Johns Hopkins University that lambasted the district for poor academic performance, unsafe schools and lackluster morale. (Read at


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  • When Classrooms Deck the Halls: See the Colorful, Creative and Adorably Silly School Holiday Decorations Quietly Flooding Social Media

    By Meghan Gallagher | December 18, 2019

    In between planning lectures, grading papers and overseeing year-end celebrations, teachers across the country are still somehow finding time to transcend the holiday wreath, converting their classrooms, doors and hallways into sprawling, colorful and creative winter wonderlands.

    And on social media, followers have taken notice. With the construction paper and glitter being hung with great care, parents and supporters have rushed to their Facebook forums to like and to share.

    A few of our 2019 favorites:

    Coast to coast, everyone seems to love a good pun. From these silly students in California:

    To these Texans:

    This NYC cityscape — complete with a Santa flyby — caught our eye:

    Library or Macy’s? Classroom or candy land? Who knew doors had so much potential?

    Nostalgia is always a reliable go-to; here’s one door that was inspired by the classics:

    The eco-friendly door:

    And, of course, a meme or two…

    Some schools made things interesting with a little competition.

    But however you judge it, we’re giving all these designs a ribbon — for bringing a little cozy and creative cheer to these classroom communities.


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  • As Education Department Prepares to Release Highly Anticipated Title IX Rules, Dem Bill Offers Last-Ditch Effort to Shut Them Down

    By Mark Keierleber | December 16, 2019

    Democratic lawmakers have mobilized a last-ditch effort to stop the release of controversial federal rules that govern how schools across the country must respond to sexual misconduct complaints.

    The legislation from four Democratic congresswomen aims to halt the release of highly anticipated regulations expected soon from the Education Department that would bolster the due process rights of students accused of sexual misconduct.

    Draft regulations released last year would make several controversial changes to the way schools must respond to misconduct complaints under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. Released last week, the Democratic bill would prohibit Education Secretary Betsy DeVos from implementing rules “that weaken the enforcement” of Title IX. The bill would likely face steep opposition from the Republican-controlled Senate.

    “It’s as if fraternities around the country drafted this rule,” Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California and co-author of the bill, said in a media release. “The bar for proving sexual violence will be so high that survivors will be discouraged from coming forward and schools will once again be able to sweep allegations under the rug.”

    The Education Department’s draft regulations, which narrow the definition of harassment and allow schools to adopt a higher standard of proof, offer a significant policy shift from Obama administration guidance. Once released, the final regulations will likely face lawsuits. Conversations over campus sexual harassment generally center on colleges, but the rules also apply to K-12 schools — which have faced their own challenges in combating abuse.

    For Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat from Michigan, concern over the proposed regulations centers on Michigan State University, located in her congressional district. The proposed changes, Slotkin said in the news release, would negatively affect survivors abused by convicted sex offender Larry Nassar, a former doctor for the American women’s gymnastics team and Michigan State University associate professor. In September, the Education Department fined the university a record $4.5 million for its failure to address sexual abuse claims against Nassar.


    Ed Dept’s New Title IX Rules Would Set Higher Bar for Proving Sex Harassment in K-12 vs. Higher Ed; Women’s Groups Vow Opposition as 60-Day Comment Period Begins

    The Education Department recently confirmed that it aims to release the final regulations by the end of the fall semester. However, the White House Office of Management and Budget, which reviews proposed regulations before they’re finalized, has scheduled meetings on the issue until early February 2020. Among groups scheduled to meet with the office are the National Center for Youth Law, a vocal critic of the proposed rules, and National Coalition for Men Carolinas, which supports the changes. The office is also scheduled to meet with leaders at multiple universities and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

    Proponents of the proposed regulations say they’re a victory for student due process rights. Among changes in the draft regulations, schools would be able to choose a standard of proof — either “clear and convincing” or “preponderance of the evidence” — to adjudicate misconduct cases. Under Obama-era rules, schools were required to use the lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard. Under the proposed regulations, schools can use that standard only if it is applied to all student misconduct. Critics say that change, among others, could discourage victims from reporting abuse.

    Elizabeth Tang, the counsel for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, said the legislation sends “a clear message” that the proposed regulations “are harmful and illegal.”

    “The Department of Education’s dangerous goals are not a secret, as it has explicitly stated that its goal is to reduce the number of sexual harassment investigations conducted by schools,” Tang, whose law center helped Slotkin’s office draft the legislation, told The 74 in an email. “We cannot allow Secretary DeVos to sweep sexual harassment under the rug and to make it harder instead of easier for student survivors to come forward.”

    In the Nassar case, victims often reported abuse to athletic personnel, staff and others they trusted. If the proposed rules had been in place at the time of the Nassar case, Michigan State wouldn’t have been required to respond to several key incidents, according to Slotkin’s office. Current department policy requires schools to address harassment if a student reports an allegation to a “reasonable employee.” The proposed regulations require students to report allegations to a Title IX coordinator or a school official with “authority to institute corrective measures.”

    Critics of the proposed regulations made a similar argument after an Education Department investigation found that Chicago Public Schools failed for years to address sexual misconduct. Under the proposed regulations, for example, the Chicago district wouldn’t have been required to intervene when a teacher assaulted a student in his car, according to the critics.


    DeVos vs. DeVos: The Education Department’s Response to Chicago’s Sexual-Misconduct Scandal Contradicts Its Proposed Direction for Title IX, Experts Say

    It remains unclear, however, how the final regulations will differ from the proposed rules. Citing anonymous sources in a story last month, The Washington Post reported that the final rules will retain many of the most controversial proposals. Among them is a provision that would allow college students accused of misconduct to cross-examine their accusers. An Education Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the final rules or legislation.

    However, the Post noted that the Education Department is expected to step away from a proposed rule that would hold institutions responsible only for incidents that occur on campus or during school activities. That proposed rule, Slotkin’s office noted, would have required the university to ignore Nassar’s off-campus misconduct.

    Still, Tang said the proposed regulations could be particularly harmful for students in K-12 schools. While it’s difficult to report abuse at any age, it’s particularly difficult for younger children, she said.

    “If the rules go into effect, schools will be legally allowed to ignore all sexual harassment that is not reported to a small set of high-ranking school employees,” Tang said. “That means a K-12 student will not be entitled to any help if they tell a guidance counselor they were raped by a classmate, or if they tell a teacher that they are being sexually abused by another teacher.”


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  • New Numbers Show More Colleges Using High School Grades, Not Just Standardized Tests, to Determine If Students Require Remedial Coursework

    By Mikhail Zinshteyn | December 15, 2019

    For advocates, change hardly happens fast enough. But over a five-year period, a key barrier to the success of many college students has eroded considerably, opening up the door for thousands of new students to progress through college at higher rates.

    The share of community colleges and four-year public universities that have started to use alternatives to standardized tests to determine whether students are ready for college-level math courses more than doubled between 2011 and 2016, to 57 percent for community colleges and 63 percent for four-year public institutions — up from 27 percent. The November findings are from a representative survey of postsecondary institutions’ approaches to placing students in remedial courses, the first since 2011.

    In English, those figures increased to 51 and 54 percent in 2016 for two- and four-year public institutions, respectively, from 19 and 15 percent in 2011.

    The survey was in part funded by a federal grant and conducted by the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness, a collaboration of MDRC and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

    The findings signal a national shift away from relying solely on standardized tests, which a growing chorus of researchers faults for placing more students in remedial courses than is necessary. Other measures, such as high school performance, have shown to be better predictors of whether students will pass a college-level course. As many as 70 percent of college students are told to take remedial courses when they first enter college, which few complete, resulting in dropouts and sunken ambitions.

    “You’re seeing that change is happening,” said Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow, the lead author of the report. “If you consider that five years before this survey, almost no one was using anything other than standardized tests, I think that’s a pretty big growth in five years.”

    Despite the increased embrace of multiple measures, the survey found that nearly 40 percent of public colleges use only one placement strategy, and 90 percent of those use just standardized tests.

    Still, review of high school performance was the second-most popular way of assessing student skills after standardized tests, the report said, “indicating that many colleges may be heeding recent research suggesting that students’ high school grades are a more accurate predictor of their college success.” While more than 90 percent of public institutions used standardized assessments, more than 40 percent relied on high school records.

    Placement policy that relies just on placement test results can lead to surprising degrees of misplacement for students in community college. A December research brief published by UC Davis in California showed that students from a large urban school district who enrolled in a nearby community college district between 2009 and 2014 were often placed in remedial math even though they took advanced high school classes. The brief showed that 84 percent of the students who took pre-calculus in high school wound up in remedial math anyway. Of those, nearly a third were placed in pre-algebra or below. Among students who took calculus in high school, just about half were placed in remedial math.

    The survey also offers a national snapshot of the strategies colleges are using to teach students determined to need remedial coursework.

    Most community colleges and a large share of public universities assigned students to multiple levels of developmental education in 2016, but by then reforms to that model were already noticeable. Those include allowing students to take compressed remedial courses that package several semesters of coursework into one remedial course. Another reform places students deemed in need of remedial support into college-level courses that come with extra tutoring or instruction to catch them up on more basic elements, known as the corequisite model.

    The report noted that though “experimentation is widespread, colleges are generally not offering these approaches at scale, with most interventions making up less than half of their overall developmental course offerings.” The report also indicated that more four-year universities had been using developmental education courses in 2016 than in 2000.

    The remedial reform landscape has taken off considerably since 2016, however. California State University, the nation’s largest university system, with around 480,000 students, removed remedial courses in time for fall 2018, replacing them with other models, such as the corequisite approach. And a California law implemented this year will shift the community college system from one in which most students were assigned to remedial courses to one in which most aren’t.

    A December 2018 analysis of state remedial instruction policies indicated that more than a dozen states had statutes permitting similar reforms to how these courses are taught.

    But even when states or college systems recommend or mandate the use of these instructional models, not all institutions may comply, the report showed. In Georgia, “only 64 percent of two-year colleges surveyed use this approach for developmental math instruction and 60 percent for developmental reading and writing,” the report said. By contrast, all universities in Georgia reported using corequisite models. The difference might be in how the two systems were told to embrace the corequisite model — the universities were mandated to do so, while the colleges had more leeway and could adopt methods other than corequisites.

    “Clearly colleges are still doing their own thing,” Rutschow said.


    Sometimes the Outcome Is the Equity: Why It’s Critical to Prepare Students of Color to Do Well on Standardized Tests — Even If You’re Not a Fan


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  • Challenging Conventional Wisdom, Report Finds Promising Academic Performance in Chicago’s Growing English Learner Population

    By Mark Keierleber | December 8, 2019

    This is the latest article in The 74’s ongoing ‘Big Picture’ series, bringing American education into sharper focus through new research and data. Go Deeper: See our full series.

    For years, the academic performance of English learners in Chicago has looked grim, with research showing they lag far behind students who entered school as native English speakers. But a new report calls into question that conventional wisdom.

    By eighth grade, most Chicago students who began their first year of school unable to speak English fluently had academic achievement similar to — or even better than — their native-English classmates, according to the new report by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. More than three-quarters of the children in the study were proficient in English by eighth grade. These students, researchers found, had better attendance, math scores and overall course grades than their native-English peers. Meanwhile, the two groups had similar test scores in reading.

    A bilingual education program at Chicago Public Schools may have played a role in the promising results. But another factor could be at work: Researchers used what they say is a more accurate way to assess student performance.

    Research and school accountability data often focus on “active English learners” who have not yet reached proficiency in the language. When students become proficient, they leave the English learner category and their progress is measured only as part of the general student population. That strategy therefore provides a “biased picture” of English learners’ academic performance, according to the report.

    “That was actually a little bit troubling to us because it doesn’t really paint the whole picture of what our schools are doing” to improve the performance of English learners, said report co-author Marisa de la Torre, senior research associate and managing director at the consortium.

    The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research

    Consortium researchers tracked 18,000 Chicago students and analyzed the long-term trajectories of children who began kindergarten as English learners through eighth grade. Their performance was then compared to Chicago students who were never classified as English learners. The positive findings suggest the instruction given to Chicago’s English learners is academically appropriate.

    The report comes as the number of English learners in Chicago and elsewhere has grown exponentially. In schools across the country, the proportion of students who are English learners grew by 26 percent between 2000 and 2015, according to federal education data. During the 2018-19 school year, about a quarter of Chicago’s public school kindergartners were not fluent in English. Districtwide, about one-third of Chicago students are classified as English learners at some point in their academic careers.

    With that population growing, the report demonstrates that the district’s strategies are working, said LaTanya McDade, the district’s chief education officer. The district, America’s third-largest, has more than doubled the number of campuses with dual language programs since 2016. These programs offer students course instruction in both English and their native language. Meanwhile, the district has hired an additional 1,000 bilingual educators since 2015, according to district data.

    The district’s focus on biliteracy, McDade said, gives students a competitive edge. “We see biliteracy as their superpower,” she said, so “we want to make sure that we are, yes, immersing students in English, but also in their native language.”

    A potential notch in the district’s favor is that while some states prioritize English-only education, schools in Illinois are required to offer transitional bilingual or dual language programs. It’s possible that the district’s emphasis on dual language programs builds “on the strength of students’ home language and culture, rather than seeing them as impediments,” according to the report.

    While much of the research on English learners centers on children in California, the report’s focus on Chicago students is notable because Illinois law requiring bilingual education and funding for such programs has been consistent over time, said Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro, manager of education policy and research at the Latino Policy Forum.

    “California has been all over the place when it comes to bilingual education; they were English-only for a while,” Vonderlack-Navarro said during a press conference in Chicago last week. “We need to maintain investment in [English learner] programming because it works.”

    De la Torre called the report’s findings on student attendance especially notable. For low-income students, factors such as unreliable transportation or inadequate health care can prevent them from showing up to school. But the research found that Chicago’s English learners “were actually coming to school much more often” than their native-English peers, even though they’re more likely to be economically disadvantaged, she said. It remains unclear to what extent district policies contributed to English learners’ academic performance, de la Torre said. But she’d like to see similar analyses in other districts to understand how the achievement of English learners elsewhere resembles the results in Chicago.

    Despite overall promising results, however, the report did find a significant share of English learners in Chicago who struggled to learn English.

    More than half of the students in the study were English proficient by third grade, as were three-quarters by the end of fifth grade. But students who didn’t reach proficiency by that point — typically male and identified for special education — were unlikely to do so by high school, researchers found.

    The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research

    The 1 in 5 students who didn’t reach English proficiency by the end of eighth grade also struggled in school more broadly, according to the report, and had lower attendance, grades and test scores than those who learned the language earlier on. But there is a silver lining: Scores on the first-grade English proficiency test showed a clear gap between students who eventually became proficient in the language by high school and those who did not. That finding suggests that educators may be able to identify these students early in their schooling and target them with more intensive services. McDade said the district is currently exploring ways to implement early intervention services for students who struggle to demonstrate English proficiency.

    Meanwhile, in Chicago and beyond, it’s important for policymakers to track the performance of English learners over the long term, Vonderlack-Navarro said.

    “For too long under No Child Left Behind, we looked at how a child did at one point in time on an exam and made so many assumptions,” she said. “Now we’re learning it’s not the kids that were the problem. It was the adults and how we were looking at the data.”


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  • Preschool-Age Kids Don’t Fully Grasp Federal Immigration Policy — but for Some It’s Causing Toxic Stress, Report Argues

    By Mark Keierleber | December 3, 2019

    Amid heightened fears over immigration enforcement, a startling trend has emerged: Should they get deported, parents are asking preschool teachers to care for their children.

    Meanwhile, that anxiety has filtered down to young children in immigrant families, according to a new report published by child welfare organizations Early Edge California and The Children’s Partnership. Even though America’s youngest children don’t fully grasp the minutiae of federal immigration policy, the Trump administration’s tough rhetoric and enforcement has spurred stress among young children, according to the report.

    The report comes as Gov. Gavin Newsom and other California lawmakers are pushing the importance of early learning opportunities for young children. In the 2019-20 budget, lawmakers invested $2.3 billion to improve access to early childhood education, including money to expand access to subsidized preschool. The report argues that policymakers must pay specific attention to the state’s growing population of children in immigrant households for those efforts to be effective.

    Researchers recommend that the state prioritize training to help the early childhood workforce identify and respond to migration-related trauma. Under a recent California law, K-12 schools are prohibited from collecting information on students’ immigration status and must adopt procedures to guide staff members about what to do if immigration agents show up on campus. However, the law doesn’t cover preschools. The report urges preschools and childcare programs to adopt policies of their own clarifying that their facilities are “safe spaces” from immigration enforcement.

    “These visits are disruptive, and having a plan in place — and communicating that plan to staff and parents — will help prepare staff and protect families,” according to the report. Creating a plan would signal to immigrant parents and students that “their safety and security is taken seriously.”

    Though almost all California children 5 and younger are U.S. citizens, about half — or 1.3 million — have at least one immigrant parent. In recent surveys, early childhood providers reported that some students in immigrant families have exhibited heightened anxiety when they’re dropped off at school in the morning, while other students have become more aggressive or less engaged. The anecdotes are troubling because children 5 and younger are in their “most important developmental stage,” said Aracely Navarro, associate director of government and community relations at The Children’s Partnership. “Continuous stress becomes toxic,” she said, and it could hamper students’ mental and physical health.

    For fear of running into federal immigration officials, some parents have become wary of taking their children to public places, such as childcare centers, and of enrolling in public benefits. As a result, some childcare facilities have reported a decline in attendance, according to the report. Early childhood providers reported that behavioral challenges have become particularly pronounced among children with deported family members.

    But childcare providers are in a unique position to educate families about community services available to them, the report argues. To do so, they should form partnerships with providers of legal services and health care.


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  • U.S. Students’ Scores Stagnant on International Exam, With Widening Achievement Gaps in Math and Reading

    By Mark Keierleber | December 3, 2019

    This is the latest article in The 74’s ongoing ‘Big Picture’ series, bringing American education into sharper focus through new research and data. Go Deeper: See our full series.

    American teenagers’ overall reading, mathematics and science literacy scores were stagnant on an international test last year, showing no improvement from three years ago. Meanwhile, the achievement gap between low- and high-performing students widened in mathematics and reading but narrowed in science.

    Last year, U.S. 15-year-olds scored above average in reading and science and below average in math among countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), according to results released Tuesday. The assessment, developed and coordinated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is administered every three years and provides a global view of American students’ academic performance compared with teens in nearly 80 participating countries or education systems.

    Compared with scores in other regions, U.S. teens ranked ninth in reading, 31st in math and 12th in science. Nations with comparable student scores included Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom.

    Between 2015 and 2018, the U.S. improved its global ranking in each of the tested subjects — but not for the right reasons, Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the assessment division at the National Center for Education Statistics, said on a call with reporters.

    “At first glance, that might sound like a cause for celebration, but it’s not,” Carr said. While U.S. scores remained steady, student performance in multiple participating countries declined. “It’s not exactly the way you want to improve your ranking, but nonetheless that ranking has improved.”

    Although average scores in reading and math showed no long-term change, the average score in science was higher in 2018 than it was in 2006. However, the U.S. science score has been flat since 2009.

    U.S. PISA results were less grim than the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores released in October. On that test, math scores were stagnant while reading scores went down. Similar to NAEP, PISA highlighted a widening gap between high- and low-performing students in math and reading. As is the case in most countries that participated in PISA, socioeconomically disadvantaged students performed poorer than their more affluent peers.

    On reading, for example, 27 percent of advantaged students and just 4 percent of disadvantaged students were top performers on the test. Across OECD countries, 17 percent of advantaged students and 3 percent of disadvantaged students were top performers in reading. In math and science, socioeconomics were a strong predictor of performance across participating countries. In the U.S., socioeconomics accounted for 16 percent of the variation in PISA math scores and 12 percent of performance differences in science.

    In some countries, such as Lebanon and Bulgaria, PISA results show wide performance gulfs between schools, said Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s director for education and skills. But that’s not the case in the U.S., where the bulk of the variation occurred within schools rather than between them. In the U.S., he said, “it’s not so easy to pinpoint a few schools and say, ‘That’s where all of the problems come from.”

    But the growing gap between high- and low-performing students is alarming because “students who do not make the grade face pretty grim prospects,” he said.

    Math scores in the U.S. on PISA are most worrying because they’re below the OECD average, said Anthony Mackay, CEO and president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. But across subjects, he said, the PISA results should serve as a wake-up call for policymakers, whom he urged to look at higher-performing nations as models for improvement. Across subjects, students from China and Singapore outperformed teens in other countries. The Philippines and the Dominican Republic consistently scored at the bottom.

    “Generally, we need obviously to be investing more in the early years, and that’s a message that’s come from so many of these higher-performing countries,” he said. “Secondly, they are very clear about investing in the quality of teaching all the way from how they recruit and how they retain teachers [to] how they continue to ensure that there is deep professional learning going on.”

    An emphasis on educational equity is also key, he said. The highest-performing countries, he said, are “constantly supporting those who need the support to catch up.”


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