With schools across the country closed because of the coronavirus, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos urged Congress on Friday to provide “microgrants” to disadvantaged students whose schools have “simply shut down.”
But to longtime DeVos followers, the proposal may sound familiar. Though she gave few specifics about the proposal when she announced it during a White House coronavirus briefing, her comments generally fell in line with her many years of school choice advocacy — in particular, her support of taxpayer-funded private school tuition.
In an email, an Education Department spokesperson said the proposed “Continue to Learn” microgrants would allocate federal funding for students to receive “educational services provided by a private or public school.”
“I’ve always believed education funding should be tied to students, not systems, and that necessity has never been more evident,” DeVos said during the briefing — comments that resembled her pre-pandemic push for “Education Freedom Scholarships.” That proposal would provide federal tax credits to people who donate to school scholarship programs for private school tuition and other education expenses.
With campuses across the country shuttered as the virus spreads, many schools have transitioned to remote instruction, mostly through online learning. In six states, all public schools have been closed through the end of the academic year, according to Education Week. As of Monday, the virus had resulted in 2,405 deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But some education leaders have resisted the transition to remote learning. In Philadelphia, for example, the district prohibited remote learning that counts toward students’ grades because of concerns that it was unable to provide equitable instruction to all students. Last week, city school officials approved a plan to buy 50,000 computers for students in order to offer remote instruction by April 17.
The Education Department spokesperson said the microgrants would allocate funding for disadvantaged students whose schools have been closed for at least a month, with an emphasis on children who receive special education or are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which supplies food stamps. Recipients could use the federal money to buy computers and software, internet access, and instructional materials like textbooks and tutoring. For children with disabilities, the grants could be used for educational services and therapy.
The proposal would also provide money to teachers to help them “pivot to supporting all of their students in a different environment than they’ve been used to,” DeVos said.
The proposal has already received pushback from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who accused DeVos in a tweet of making “our lives harder.” Though she said federal grants for schools is crucial, she pushed back on how DeVos characterized education leaders’ response to the crisis.
“I don’t know any district that ‘simply shut down,’” Weingarten tweeted.
DeVos didn’t specify how much money she’s asking Congress to allocate or offer a timeline for when the grants may be available. But she did commend school leaders who have innovated to teach children during a time of unprecedented upheaval.
“It’s an important moment to realize that learning can and does happen anywhere and everywhere,” DeVos said, noting a recent conversation with Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s superintendent of public instruction. “She told me, ‘School isn’t a building. It’s students, teachers and families working together to advance learning.’ She’s right, and that’s our shared mission.”
Video: DeVos Talks Distance Learning, Testing Waivers and ‘Microgrants’ to Aid Student & Educator Innovation at Coronavirus Task Force Briefing
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appeared at the White House coronavirus briefing Friday, addressing the waivers that have already been issued to 46 states concerning standardized tests, encouraging districts to urgently develop plans for distance learning, and surfacing a new proposal for “microgrants” that could aid both teachers and students in pursuing new methods and mechanisms for teaching and learning. We’ve recently covered some of these developments and the implications of school being shuttered for nearly half the school year; see all our coverage at The74Million.org/Coronavirus.
See DeVos’s full remarks:
School Finance Expert Warns District Leaders to Prepare for ‘Major Financial Upheaval’ From Pandemic
With a recession on the way, states and localities could be making severe cuts to public education over the next year — and many leaders don’t seem to realize it yet.
That was the message delivered this week by Marguerite Roza, one of America’s foremost experts in school finance, in a public webinar. Her presentation to researchers and state policymakers offered a bearish outlook for school funding and turned on stark recommendations for mitigating the crisis: With sources of revenue plummeting in the months ahead, policymakers should keep costs low, communicate frequently and look for opportunities to settle long-term fiscal accounts.
In a follow-up interview with The 74, Roza emphasized the need for quick and careful measures to deal with what could be a “devastating” economic downturn.
A former economic adviser at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a longtime observer of how money moves through the education system, Roza now serves as the director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab research center, which administered Tuesday afternoon’s online discussion. In the talk, she warned of “major financial upheaval” resulting from the spread of coronavirus.
“Districts are essentially going to have more costs,” she said. “That’s the one-two punch that happens: Revenues will drop while expenses will increase.”
Although funding for the current school year is stable in most areas, the coming months are likely to see incoming funds “plummet,” she explained. The abrupt wave of layoffs, shuttering of businesses and virtual standstill of the travel and leisure industries have put consumption on pause, choking off sales taxes that many states use to fund schools.
At the same time, suddenly reduced teacher turnover — more veteran instructors will keep their relatively secure and high-paying jobs as the labor market goes south — will push up the costs of salary and benefits, she said. Children of newly unemployed and displaced parents will require more social services, and public schools are likely to see a migration of new students previously enrolled at expensive private academies.
These pressures will converge at the same time that state lawmakers are forced to allocate more funding to Medicaid and other programs serving those affected by the recession. All of which argues for a sober approach to budgeting, Roza advised. Hiring should be frozen, promotions delayed.
“We’ve heard people say, ‘Wow, it’s a great time to hire!’” she said. “I would say that it’s horrific to do layoffs, and as much as you can avoid hiring now, I would.”
Cuts are never palatable to teachers or parents, which makes public messaging key. Many constituents, wary of losing popular teachers or favored afterschool programs, “think the district could tap more money if it was just willing to do so,” she said. In fact, special exemptions for some schools always come at the expense of students in another school, a message that often resonates with the public.
In the call with The 74, Roza commented on the federal stimulus, which was still being negotiated midweek. Even a huge relief package would “split the difference, at best,” she remarked, owing to the disparate impact of the coming fiscal problems: Some states will have to cut deeper than their neighbors, and some districts can fall back more easily than others on lucrative local property taxes — but federal funding allocations will be spread evenly across states.
To complicate matters further, influential stakeholders may not understand the challenges they’re facing. Few key players today were in senior positions during the budgetary carnage that followed the Great Recession, when red ink filled district ledgers for years at a time.
“We talk with a lot of financial leaders in school districts, and they weren’t in those positions during the last recession,” she said. “They might have been in grad school or entering an analyst position, and a little more than a decade later, they’re budget directors or CFOs. They don’t have that visceral sense of what’s coming. Somebody asked me what a RIF [reduction in force] was, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s how long it’s been. They don’t recognize the word anymore.'”
One possible upside of the economic shock? It might provide cover to the growing number of districts already dealing with structural resource problems, most related to unfunded obligations around employee pensions and benefits. By starting a dialogue about the long-term fiscal health of school systems, Roza said, leaders could create room for “emergency-like decisions on things that we’re overdue to address.”
“I hear districts all the time say, ‘We have underenrolled schools all over the place, but politically, we can’t [close them].’ But schools are closed right now, and they may be laying off lots of people next year. It’s like, this is the least of your community’s worries, so maybe get that done.”
Coronavirus Must-Reads — Key Coverage for Schools & Communities: How a Pandemic Is Impacting Distance Learning, Student Safety, Equity, Funding & More
This is a special edition of EduClips, our recurring roundup of top education headlines from America’s 15 largest school districts, where more than 4 million students across 10 states typically attend class every day. See our full EduClips archive right here.
It’s only been two weeks since Seattle became the first major U.S. district to close its schools due to the coronavirus pandemic. But it may as well have been a lifetime ago. As of Wednesday, all but three states — Iowa, Nebraska and Maine — had required that schools be shuttered; and two, Kansas and Virginia, announced closures for the remainder of the school year.
The changes in those 14 days have been seismic and, for many, profoundly unsettling. With schools employing a patchwork of distance learning systems and parents suddenly put in the uncomfortable role of teachers, this period could become “a vast unplanned experiment in mass home schooling,” said Kevin Carey, vice president for education policy at the New America think tank. Along the way, it is introducing a whole new slang (Zoombombing?) and putting under a microscope the enormous equity gap between the digital haves and have-nots.
The pandemic has also exposed fissures between states, districts and the federal government as schools clamor for clear guidance on a host of issues. Even the dilemma of school closures, which district and state chiefs more or less settled unilaterally, appears to be an open subject at the White House. Asked about it this week, President Donald Trump said such decisions are “up to the governors” and that, in some states, “the schools are going to open.” Last week, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced a one-year waiver on standardized testing, but large questions remain on issues such as how to provide distance learning to special education students — issues that may be ultimately decided by the courts. At press time, the House was poised to act on a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package that could provide substantial relief to parents, teachers and schools. The House needs to reconcile that package with its own version, which proposes significantly more funding for education.
A quick scan of key coronavirus clips for educators, district leaders, students and school communities:
Student Safety — With School Out and Activities Canceled, Community Leaders Confront the Challenges of Keeping Kids Safe (Read at The Washington Post)
Schooling at Home — ‘A Really Big Experiment’: Parents Turn Teachers Amid Virus (Read at The New York Times)
Homeless Students — Reaching ‘Our Most Invisible Population’ During a Pandemic: How Schools Are Scrambling to Protect Homeless Students as Coronavirus Disrupts Lives (Read at The74Million.org)
Federal Policy — How Does Current Law Limit Betsy DeVos’ Power to Waive Education Mandates? (Read at Education Week)
‘Social Distance’ Learning
School Districts Take Unplanned Plunge into Online Learning (Read at The New York Times)
Analysis: How Are Schools Shifting Student Support, Instruction and District Operations Amid Coronavirus? 5 Early Findings From New National Survey (Read at The74Million.org)
The ‘New Reality’ of Coronavirus: Here’s What NYC’s First Day of Remote Learning Looked Like (Read at Chalkbeat)
Teachers Find Many Obstacles as They Try to Keep Kids Learning Amid Coronavirus (Read at Los Angeles Times)
What Is and Is Not Working as Educators Transition to Online Learning (Read at Education Week)
Parents and Families
Need Help Sorting Through the Avalanche of Online Resources for Kids Who Are Now Learning at Home? 11 Sites for Parents to Look At (Read at The74Million.org)
Childcare Providers Are Feeling an Unprecedented Squeeze. Now, They’re Asking for Help (Read at Chalkbeat)
Kids’ Favorite Authors and Illustrators Share Stories, Lessons from Home (Read at The Washington Post)
45 Tweets From Parents About Social Distancing With Kids (Read at HuffPost)
A Social Activist in Texas Taps His ‘Coolest Friends’ to Host Afternoon Adventures Online During Coronavirus Shutdown, and Parents and Kids — By the Thousands — Tune In (Read at The74Million.org)
‘Bright Star’ Principal, 36, Dies From Coronavirus (Read at Education Week)
Brooklyn Principal Hospitalized After Another Principal in the Same Building Died from Coronavirus (Read at Chalkbeat)
With Schools Shut Down, What Happens to Hiring (Read at Education Week)
‘Am I Doing Enough?’ As Districts Try Remote Learning for Students with Disabilities, These Challenges Lie Ahead (Read at Chalkbeat)
For Parents Trying to Replicate School for Children with Disabilities, a Confounding Task (Read at The Washington Post)
Despite Assurances of Flexibility, Educators Fear Liability in Online Instruction of Special Ed Students (Read at EdSource)
Equity and Activism
Federal Policy Says Students Must Pick Up School Meals In-person. Families with Susceptible Children Face Wrenching Decisions. (Read at The Washington Post)
NYC Student Activists Can’t Boycott Schools That Are Closed, but as Coronavirus Highlights Long-Standing Inequities, a Chance to Change Policy Emerges (Read at The74Million.org)
Working From Home Reveals Another Fault Line in America’s Racial and Educational Divide (Read at The Washington Post)
Essays and Reflections
Social Distancing Without a Social Safety Net: How Shutdowns Came to My Child’s Fragile School Community (Read at The74Million.org)
How the Coronavirus Could Take Over Your Body (Before You Ever Feel It) (Read at New York Magazine)
The Stimulus Package Will Help Families, But It Doesn’t Go Far Enough (Read at Education Week)
Coronavirus: Are California Kids Actually Learning Since Coronavirus Closed Their Schools? (Read at the Los Angeles Times)
Student Voice: Part Staycation, Part Home Detention, My Life During Pandemic Is a Study in Contrasts (Read at The74Million.org)
“It’s a really big experiment.” —Roxanne Ojeda-Valentin, a single mother of a sixth-grader in Buffalo, New York, on educating her son during the pandemic. (Read at The New York Times)
“Of course, I’m concerned for the health of my family and community. But as self-absorbed as it feels to say it, I’m also worried about not being able to go to prom.” —Sadie Bograd, a high school junior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Kentucky. (Read at The74Million.org)
“It is really shedding light on some inequalities in a new way. A lot of people who have highly paid, white-collar jobs that are computer-focused can adjust to this crisis without a lot of pain. And then there’s a much larger group that can’t adjust without a lot of pain to themselves and their families.” —Heidi Shierholz, former chief economist for the Labor Department, now at the Economic Policy Institute. (Read at The Washington Post)
“The friend’s family said, ‘You can’t stay here because people are getting sick,’ and so they asked her to leave. This wasn’t the first time she had spent the night in the car.” —Casey Gordon, who manages homeless-student outreach efforts at the Kent Intermediate School District in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on the plight of homeless students during the pandemic. (Read at The74Million.org)
“Zoombombing is no joke. I don’t think we were ready for that. If a teacher wants to hold a review session for 100 kids, you just can’t monitor what kids are screenshotting and what’s going on in the chat.” —Pat Finley, co-principal of Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in New York City. (Read at Chalkbeat)
The Weather Channel Is Now Teaching Kids, at 50 Past the Hour: 8 Things We’ve Learned About Snow, Atmosphere, Planets & More
America’s dislocated students now have an unexpected outlet for science lessons amid the pandemic: The Weather Channel.
The cable network is hitting pause on forecasts and weather maps once an hour, at 50 minutes past, to share student-focused content, ranging from weather phenomena to astronomy to destigmatizing the inner workings of such scary things as thunderstorms and blizzards.
They’re also now identifying for families the best time of the day for “recess,” given the meteorological conditions. In a partnership with Sesame Street, Elmo occasionally accompanies the network’s on-camera meteorologists:
We spent a few days tuning in at the 50s; here are 8 things we learned about the weather:
1 Why snow is white:
Elmo helped introduce the subjects of snowflakes, ice crystals and how light reflects and is absorbed in different structures. After an explanation that white objects reflect light and black objects absorb light, we learn that snowflakes are composed of crystals, which redirect light in every possible direction. As a result, snowflakes look white to the human eye.
2 Atmosphere caps:
Meteorologist Jacqui Jeras landed a more advanced lesson — and a nifty metaphor. Wearing a baseball cap, she introduces the concept of the atmosphere cap: a layer of warm air situated a couple thousand feet up in the atmosphere that stops air from rising and can delay thunderstorms. As the heat under the cap escalates, the cap can break and spark strong storms.
3 The vernal equinox:
Why did spring start last week, on March 19? How does the leap year affect the date? What does “equinox” mean? Jeras, again, has all the A’s to these Q’s. But if you’re dying to know, here’s what we got: The first day of spring occurs when the sun rays are directly over the equator; the word “equinox” essentially means equal parts of day and night; and the leap year played a part in this being the earliest arrival of spring in 124 years.
4 Helping kids cope with thunderstorms:
With strong storms in the forecast, meteorologist Jim Cantore explains to a frightened Elmo what happens during thunderstorms. “If you know what’s happening, maybe they’re not so scary,” Cantore assures. With that comfort comes a glimpse of science behind the rumbling: Lightning occurs when negatively charged particles in clouds collide with the positively charged ground. Thunder comes from the air becoming superheated by the lightning, rapidly expanding and then crashing back together. The lesson wraps up with a helpful catchphrase: “When lightning roars, go indoors.”
5 What are we seeing in the night sky?
At this time of year, it’s most likely Venus, says veteran space reporter Kelly Beatty. (Space.com notes that this month marks the planet’s highest altitude in its eight-year cycle.) He suggests grabbing the family and a pair of binoculars to take advantage of all you can see during this clear time of the year — including the massive craters on the moon — that can be seen with the naked eye. (The next full moon is scheduled for April 7.) He also recommends loading the web application Globe at Night, a “citizen-science campaign” that allows users to upload their observations (and to also gauge the state of light pollution worldwide).
6 The many faces of spring:
Ringing in the new season, Jeras explains to young viewers that spring doesn’t always arrive in full bloom and illustrates its unpredictable variability with two cities in Arizona. Wintry weather remains in a snow-covered town two hours outside of Flagstaff, while a more balmy yet stormy landscape is unfolding just south in Phoenix.
7 What is a blizzard — and how can families stay safe?
Heavy snow + heavy wind = blizzard warnings. And to be safe, you need to prepare for the cold, for a possible loss of electricity and for decreased visibility. Because of this, best advice is to stay home or to keep an emergency kit equipped with blankets, flashlights and extra batteries.
8 The dangers of lightning:
In light of impending bad weather, meteorologist Jen Carfagno explains how and why people are struck by lightning — and notes a few key locations to avoid during thunderstorms. Avoid beaches, golf courses and telephone poles — and remember this one for trivia: Lightning can be five times as hot as the surface of the sun.
If you’re a parent-turned-overnight-homeschooler, these weather whizzes are offering some helpful, regular breaks for your pupils. Chances are some adults could benefit from brushing up on these topics too.
Need Help Sorting Through the Avalanche of Online Resources for Kids Who Are Now Learning at Home? 11 Sites for Parents to Look At
New Database: Dozens of School Districts Share Their Early Plans for Teaching, Learning and Supports During the Pandemic. Here’s What the Top 12 Systems Are Doing
With the vast majority of America’s public schools now shuttered amid the coronavirus pandemic, more than 54 million children have been told that they won’t be attending class for the next several weeks. In many cases, students may be left learning from home through the end of the academic year.
In response to this unprecedented wave of closures, teachers, principals and district leaders across the country have quickly hatched plans to ensure that students continue learning through online lessons, e-mailed work packets, classroom video chats and other alternatives.
Still, the logistics of getting millions of kids — and also their parents — comfortable with online tools and curricula will be a considerable challenge.
So what are districts doing in the face of this unprecedented challenge? A new and evolving public database compiled by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research center based at the University of Washington Bothell, is capturing specific district-by-district efforts in transitioning to distance efforts:
Click to see the full database. (CRPE)
Analyzing dozens of top plans, including those at most of the nation’s biggest districts, CRPE found most school systems prioritizing student nutrition and child health, while still yet to iron out details of distance learning plans and how to serve special education students in remote settings. (CRPE’s Robin Lake published a detailed analysis of the findings)
You can scan the full database of how districts responded; here’s a closer look at how nine of the top 12 systems stand as of March 23:
New York City
- The nation’s largest district’s closed campuses March 16, and distance learning launched Monday.
- The district is providing specific curriculum and devices. Teachers received training the week of March 16.
- Specific information about special education is not available, but schools are expected to comply with students’ individualized education programs.
- The Los Angeles Unified School District, where the closure started March 16, is offering a variety of optional resources such as Khan Academy and SAT/ACT practice tests, with some schools providing more specific assignments and materials.
- The district is also offering educational content through public television and providing parent training for online platforms, resources for special populations and wifi.
- The district is not providing specific curriculum, teacher training or nonacademic programming.
- The district is not currently providing devices but there is some indication on the LAUSD website that it plans to do so.
- Florida’s largest district, where the closure began March 16, started distance learning the following day.
- The district is providing specific curriculum, teacher support, resources for special populations, nonacademic programming, wifi and devices.
- The district is not providing parent training.
Broward County (Florida)
- Broward County schools closed March 16 and are expected to start distance learning next Monday, March 30. Some initial resources are available online now.
- The district is providing teacher training, specific curriculum, resources for special populations, wifi and devices.
- The district is not providing parent training or nonacademic programming.
- The Houston Independent School District closed starting March 13. Staff were told to be available online Monday for training, but a distance learning plan for students had not been released as of March 20.
Hillsborough County (Florida)
- The district, which closed March 16, started distance learning Monday and is revising its plan to prepare for an extended closure.
- The district is providing specific curriculum, teacher training, wifi and devices.
- The district is not providing parent training, resources for special populations or nonacademic programming.
Orange County (Florida)
- Orange County Public Schools, which closed March 17, will start optional, self-paced distance learning March 30.
- Students can request wifi hotspots if they need them.
- Information and instructions for using the distance learning tools are available for parents online.
Fairfax County (Virginia)
- Virginia’s largest district closed March 16 and will begin mandatory distance learning March 30. Ahead of the 30th, however, the school system has already started offering some optional activities for students.
- The district is not yet providing specific curriculum, resources for special populations, nonacademic programming, teacher training or devices.
- Hawaii operates a statewide school district, which shut down March 19.
- There was no distance learning plan in place as of March 20, but teachers began working remotely March 19 and may be preparing to teach online.
Following the release of a harsh review alleging systemwide failures, education authorities in Massachusetts revealed last week that they would enter into a new governance partnership with Boston Public Schools, the state’s largest school district. While stopping short of an outright takeover, the move will impose new requirements on Boston schools to drastically improve.
The announcement, immediately overshadowed by the escalating nationwide response to the spread of coronavirus, will have profound consequences for the district’s 54,000 students. It also comes at a time of fast-moving reform in Massachusetts, where lawmakers enacted a massive and long-awaited school funding overhaul last fall.
The agreement was reached after weeks of negotiations between state Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Riley, BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. While the district will stay under local control, Riley will oversee its progress on a set of priorities ranging from transportation to chronic absenteeism — and retains the freedom to intervene if he deems it necessary.
Marty West, a professor of education at Harvard University and a member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, called the partnership unique.
“I’m not aware of other examples in which a state sets clear outcome metrics for a struggling district, backed by the threat of a takeover, while also committing to provide the district with specific supports,” he wrote in an email. “One of the things I appreciate about Commissioner Riley as a state board member is that he is an outside-of-the-box thinker.”
Amid a flurry of actions taken to slow the coronavirus outbreak — by the order of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, all public and private schools in the state will close for three weeks starting on Tuesday — the novel solution hasn’t dominated headlines. But it may drive major changes to the city’s education system.
The state has not hesitated to initiate full-bore takeovers of local districts in the past, seizing control over chronically underperforming schools in Lawrence and Holyoke. Riley led the Lawrence takeover after being appointed the district’s receiver-superintendent in 2012 and has been credited with launching an impressive academic turnaround; Lawrence is now considered a model for successful takeovers, marked by cooperation between state and local officials.
Yet the situation in Boston — an economic powerhouse that commands sizable education revenues and boasts some of the strongest schools in the state — differs significantly from that of the low-income communities that have endured state intervention in the past. Experts have praised its robust charter school sector as the best in the country, and BPS has often been acclaimed as a top performer among big-city districts.
A January report from the Urban Institute using NAEP results offers the latest evidence. When controlling for socioeconomic status, students in Boston outscored those in all other districts participating in the test’s Trial Urban District Assessment.
But the nearly 300-page report filed on Friday by Riley’s team held starkly disappointing findings: Approximately one-third of all students in Boston attend schools that would rank in the bottom 10 percent statewide. Special education was described as being in “systemic disarray,” while “staggering” absenteeism and patchwork access to advanced coursework plagued high schools.
“The district does not have a clear, coherent, district-wide strategy for supporting low-performing schools and has limited capacity to support all schools designated by [the state] as requiring assistance or intervention,” the report revealed.
Going forward, BPS will take the lead on four priority initiatives laid out by the state, including turning around achievement in the district’s 33 underperforming schools, improving the school transportation system and doing more to support students with disabilities. The state, meanwhile, has committed to helping Boston recruit and retain a more diverse teacher workforce and foster partnerships between needy schools and outside organizations.
In a statement, the pro-reform advocacy group Massachusetts Parents United called the agreement “a beginning step toward improvement” but said its members had concerns that would need to be specifically addressed.
The announcement “does not include specific metrics for improvement, strategies for how its vague aspirations will be achieved, a timeline for when these aspirations will be reached, or any consequences if BPS is unable to improve the academic performance of its students,” the statement read. “Why should parents believe BPS will be able to do these things when it has never been able to do them before?”
Representatives from the Boston Teachers Union said it was “troubling” that the deal was reached when the state was still making emergency preparations for the coronavirus, adding that the district’s dysfunctions had been neglected by the state for decades.
“While the memorandum does not constitute a state takeover, it appears to leave the door open in ways that could be dangerous for students and our communities, given the failed track record of top-down district takeovers across the country.”
‘Probably the Best News for Federal Accountability Policy, Ever’: New Study Shows No Child Left Behind’s Tough Oversight Led to Big Boost in High School Graduation Rates
America’s skyrocketing rate of high school graduation is one of the biggest puzzles in education policy.
Cheery headlines have announced the news in recent years: Some 85 percent of American students completed high school with a diploma in 2017, up from just 79 percent in 2011. Education commentators, none more prominent than President Barack Obama, lauded the trend as proof of the success of his policies. And it is difficult to argue with millions more young people passing a critical milestone on the way to successful adulthood.
More HS Students Are Graduating, but These Key Indicators Prove Those Diplomas Are Worth Less Than Ever
But a chorus of doubters has emerged as well, warning that schools and districts may have lowered their standards in order to award diplomas to students unprepared for college or employment. Some singled out the vogue for “credit recovery” programs that allow pupils to quickly — many would say too hastily — make up for courses they failed earlier. Others pointed to the disconcertingly long list of schools and districts that have resorted to administrative legerdemain and outright cheating to inflate their graduation statistics.
All of which has led researchers to ask whether the climbing rates of high school completion were simply a form of observer effect. Perhaps the introduction of high-stakes accountability, a product of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, was distorting the actions of teachers, principals and superintendents, who responded by simply waving along kids who should have been retained. If the threat of closure or loss of funding hung over educators, it was reasoned, they were incentivized to graduate their students by any means necessary.
A new study from the Brookings Institution finds some truth in that theory — but also some rather encouraging news. According to its findings, soaring graduation rates are indeed the result of federal accountability mandates, but they can’t be explained away by fraud or slackened expectations. Common manipulations to artificially boost high school completion don’t fully explain the positive trend around the country; instead, the watchful eye of bureaucrats seems to have catalyzed real growth in student knowledge and skills.
Study author Doug Harris, an economics professor at Tulane University and the director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, said he was “surprised” by the discovery, which flies in the face of gloomy news accounts and expert skepticism.
“Going into it, we were motivated by those scandals and anecdotes we were hearing about in Louisiana,” he said in an interview. “I was thinking, ‘This is not going to be good.’ But the more we dug into it, the more it actually seemed like pretty good news. And I think that it’s big news.”
To identify the importance of federal policy, Harris and his co-authors studied the movement of high school graduation rates following the implementation of No Child Left Behind.
Under the law, states were required to set graduation targets for districts to hit, or else face administrative penalties. Using information from the Common Core of Data, the researchers calculated the average freshman graduation rates of every American school district, and compared data from the pre-NCLB years 1999 and 2000 with the post-NCLB years of 2009 and 2010.
As expected, they found that high school graduation increased the most in districts that fell beneath the accountability thresholds set by their states, as well as in states with more districts under those thresholds. Meanwhile, districts already hitting their state benchmarks made the least progress. That indicates that districts and schools were responding directly to the mandates set out in federal policy.
The evidence suggests, therefore, that accountability directly led to progress in getting kids to graduate. But was that progress honestly achieved? To answer that question, the authors looked at various forms of “strategic behavior” — i.e., measures taken to satisfy state requirements that don’t actually improve student learning.
One obvious obstacle to statistical inflation is the presence of high school graduation exams, which are used in more than a dozen states. Since passing the test is a baseline requirement for students to collect a diploma, educators in those states can’t simply massage poor grades or fudge attendance figures. If those types of practices were largely responsible for the uptick in graduation, then the trend would be muted in the presence of exams.
But the study finds that the opposite happened: Graduation rates actually increased more in states with graduation exams.
Next, the team looked at the impact of credit-recovery courses, which have come under considerable scrutiny as easy ways for students to gain credit toward graduation despite failing a given class — often by passing online tests that are vulnerable to cheating. Focusing on Louisiana, the researchers found that in schools threatened with accountability sanctions, students were between four and five percentage points more likely to take at least one credit recovery course. This was especially true in math, for which subject-specific graduation requirements were tightened in the state at the same time graduation accountability was implemented.
Statistically, however, this phenomenon was much too small to explain Louisiana’s sizable spike in its high school graduation rate. That jump, from 64 percent in the 2005-06 school year to 81 percent in 2017-18, can’t be accounted for by the kind of “strategic behavior” the researchers were looking for.
Aside from schools’ overall improvement in moving high schoolers toward the finish line, another positive recent development is the significant narrowing of the credential gap between black and white students. In the past 40 years, the “status completion rate” of blacks between 18 and 24 (a measure that includes high school graduation as well as GED attainment) has caught up with that of their white peers, according to a January report from the Institute of Education Sciences.
The Brookings study does not disaggregate by student racial groups, but Harris said it was logical to conclude that black students, who are more likely to attend underperforming schools, would derive the most advantage from policies aimed at those schools.
“The districts that were below the threshold were almost certainly disproportionately attended by students of color, so those are the students who benefited more from the policy.”
Harris acknowledged the limits of the research, principally the variations in state accountability practices and the availability of credit recovery, which he said is particularly common in Louisiana. But he said the findings were evidence of the effectiveness of NCLB and its successor legislation, offering “probably the best news for federal accountability policy, ever.”
“All signs point in the right direction: that graduation accountability was a substantial cause of the increase, and that the ways in which the increases have happened [reflect] an increase in real knowledge and skill. It’s nice to see.”
In Coronavirus ‘Hotspot,’ NY Gov. Cuomo Orders Schools Closed. Why the District Superintendent Resisted the Move
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday ordered school closures in a New York City suburb that’s considered the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the state. The one-mile “containment area,” where public places such as schools and churches are required to close for two weeks, includes parts of New Rochelle and neighboring Eastchester.
“New Rochelle, at this point, is probably the largest cluster in the United States,” Cuomo said at a press conference Tuesday. While he called the one-mile zone “fairly constrained,” he said the move is “literally a matter of life and death.”
The news comes a day after Cuomo and the New Rochelle schools superintendent offered competing messages on school closures in the city. On Monday, Cuomo called New Rochelle “a significant hotspot” for the virus and suggested the schools had closed. But the schools remained open Tuesday, and Superintendent Laura Feijóo resisted calls to shut them down. The schools would remain open, she said in a letter to parents Monday, “unless and until we receive written directive to close.” Feijóo told reporters that she opposed closures because they’d be a hardship for families, especially those with low-income children who rely on schools for free meals.
Closures in the area will last through March 25, Cuomo said. The New Rochelle district announced Tuesday that three campuses would close. Tuckahoe Union Free School District campuses and multiple private schools are also affected.
During a press conference Tuesday evening, Feijóo defended her decision not to close all schools in the district but rather to close schools “only when we absolutely have to.”
“We think kids should be in school. We really think the safest place for them both educationally and safety-wise is in school,” she said.
The spat over whether to close New Rochelle schools cuts to the heart of a dilemma school districts across the country face amid fear over the spread of COVID-19, the name of the disease caused by the virus. Though education leaders have come under pressure to close schools as a precautionary measure, doing so complicates other school functions, such as providing food for low-income children.
As of Tuesday, 621 schools have closed or are planning to halt classes temporarily, according to Education Week. Those closures affect more than 430,000 students.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases across the U.S. surpassed 800 Tuesday. At least 27 people who tested positive for the virus have died. On Tuesday, a 69-year-old New Jersey man who worked in Westchester County at Yonkers Raceway, near New Rochelle, became the first person in the Northeast to die from the virus.
In New York, a total of 173 people have tested positive for the virus, 108 of whom are in Westchester County, where New Rochelle is located.
In New York City, officials said the country’s largest public school system will remain open unless a student or educator tests positive for coronavirus. At that point, schools would close for 24 hours while officials assess the situation. But an online petition calling on lawmakers to close city schools has received more than 100,000 signatures.
In New Rochelle, district officials have “advocated for help from the Governor’s Office to aid in supporting students who are food dependent,” Feijóo said in a note to parents Tuesday, adding that the district “cannot handle this alone.” She said the district needs the state to commit to food delivery for students who need the support.
“We believe students are safest in schools and are eager to reopen as soon as possible,” Feijóo continued. “It is inevitable that one of our students or staff will contract the virus. What is in our control is to be ready, calm, decisive and responsive to any and all circumstances which may arise.”
As new cases are reported, decisions on school closures are being left to state and local officials. But the federal government has attempted to alleviate concerns over school lunches for low-income children. Over the weekend, the Department of Agriculture relaxed school lunch rules so low-income children can access school meals amid closures.
Communities beyond New Rochelle have resisted preemptive school closures, including a district in suburban Seattle. Though thousands of community members signed an online petition calling on officials to halt classes, Lake Washington School District campuses remained open Tuesday.
Local public health officials recommend that the schools remain open “as long as the district can maintain appropriate supervision and adequate services,” according to a statement on the Lake Washington website. However, the district has taken several proactive steps: Activities including field trips, concerts and athletic events have been canceled or postponed through March 18.
On the national level, some public health experts are calling on school leaders to close campuses immediately, arguing that a proactive approach could save lives. Among them is Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, whose research includes a study on U.S. cities’ response to the 1918 influenza pandemic. That pandemic, considered the most deadly outbreak in human history, killed roughly 40 million people globally and more than 500,000 in the U.S.
School closures “turned out to be one of the most effective firewalls against the spread of the pandemic,” Markel wrote in The New York Times.
Though the coronavirus mortality rate remains unclear, officials shouldn’t “wait until it’s too late,” he wrote. In a separate study, on the 2009 H1N1 influenza epidemic, Markel found that most school closures in Michigan occurred too late and were therefore ineffective.
“Schools are community gathering places where large numbers of people are in proximity to one another and respiratory infections can easily spread among young people and adults alike,” he wrote. “Shutting them down can be a key part of slowing the spread of easily transmissible viruses so that hospitals are not overrun with sick people.”
Meanwhile, other research points to the potential drawbacks of temporary school closures, including an economic toll should parents be forced to stay home from work to care for their children. Additionally, if students miss extended periods of school, campus closures could carry negative consequences for academic performance.
Research also backs up an argument by Feijóo, the New Rochelle superintendent. Even with school closures, she said, it’s likely that children will mingle — potentially hindering the benefits of school closures. Even though more than 700 schools in the U.S. halted classes in 2009 to limit the H1N1 outbreak, a survey of Pennsylvania residents found that 69 percent of students visited at least one other public location, such as shopping malls or restaurants, while classes were halted.
“While students are home please remember not to congregate unnecessarily,” Feijóo said in a message to parents on Tuesday. “Keep safe and have students work on educational materials provided to you.”
Correction: Previous versions of this article incorrectly stated that the one-mile containment zone covers most of suburban New Rochelle.
EduClips: Nevada Parents Sue State, Dallas to Require Cameras in Special Ed Classes, L.A. School Board Race Heads to Runoff & More News You Missed From America’s 15 Top Districts
EduClips is a roundup of the week’s top education headlines from America’s 15 largest school districts, where more than 4 million students across 10 states attend class every day. Read previous EduClips installments here.
CALIFORNIA — After Record Spending and an Ongoing Union vs. Charter Power Struggle, At Least 2 Los Angeles School Board Races Appear Headed to a Runoff: Following Tuesday’s primary election to elect four school board members in the nation’s second-largest school district, races in two competitive districts are likely headed to a runoff in November. As Taylor Swaak reports, teachers union picks were ahead in the vote tallies in both those contests as of Wednesday. United Teachers Los Angeles ally Jackie Goldberg is positioned to keep her District 5 seat, though not all the votes are counted yet. Campaign spending, in a show of union-versus-charter advocate might, was at a record-high $8.4 million leading up to the election, with charter advocates spending the vast majority. Ongoing fights over charter schools, nearly depleted savings and stark achievement gaps are a few of the issues the board will face in the next few years. (Read at The 74)
TEXAS — Dallas Poised to Become First Big-City District to Require Video Cameras in All Special Education Classrooms: Dallas Independent School District trustees voted this week to require video recording in all special education classrooms. A recent survey found that parents overwhelmingly supported the measure, which is intended to help school officials investigate situations where students who cannot speak are restrained or harmed. State law already requires districts to install cameras in special education classrooms when parents request them. Most special education teachers and Superintendent Michael Hinojosa opposed the measure, which the board passed 7-2. (Read at The Dallas Morning News)
NEVADA — Parents Sue State, Alleging Failure to Adequately Fund Education: A group of Nevada parents is suing the state for “for failing to adequately fund education, claiming it has harmed its schoolchildren by not providing sufficient resources for their success,” Aleksandra Appleton reports in the Las Vegas Review Journal. The advocacy group, Educate Nevada Now, comprises nine parents whose children attend districts throughout the state. They name the state education department, state superintendent and state board of education as defendants. Amanda Morgan, the group’s legal director, said they are hoping the court will send the defendants this message: “What you’re doing right now doesn’t meet your constitutional obligation. Go fix it.” (Read at the Las Vegas Review Journal)
NEW YORK — ‘Fire Carranza!’: Why Asian Americans Are Targeting NYC Schools Chief: New York City Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza says his vision for integration in the nation’s largest school system will benefit “all cultures and all ethnic groups.” But frustrated Asian-American families in America’s largest district say they feel left out of plans and have protested his appearances in recent months, with some chanting “Fire Carranza!” at a January meeting in Queens. Allegations of prejudice are fueled by a series of issues, including Asian-American parents and politicians not being consulted about plans to get rid of the admissions exam for the eight specialized high schools where Asians currently make up a majority of students. Carranza told The New York Times “he regrets not reaching out to Asian Americans sooner” but will “continue to push for the elimination of the entrance exam,” Eliza Shapiro reports. (Read at The New York Times)
FLORIDA — School Safety Bill Passes Florida House With New Requirements Related to Arresting Kids: In response to the arrest of a 6-year-old girl that sparked widespread outrage last month, Florida lawmakers added a requirement for police departments to have a policy in place regarding the arrest of children under 10. The student who was arrested in the viral video, Kaia Rolle, was watching in the gallery with her grandmother when state House minority leader Rep. Kionne McGhee of Miami talked about the amendment on the House floor. The amendment does not ban such arrests but would make sure police have a policy in place to prevent arrests like Kaia’s — she was arrested because she kicked and punched school employees during a tantrum, but she had calmed down by the time police arrived. “It’s rare for amendments by Democrats to be accepted onto Republican bills at such a late stage of the process,” but lawmakers in the House passed the amendment and the bill unanimously, reported Emily L. Mahoney in The Tampa Bay Times. It’s unclear whether the Senate will take up the amendment. (Read at The Tampa Bay Times)
Noteworthy Essays and Analysis
HIGHER ED AFFORDABILITY: Mitch Daniels, the College President Who Simply Won’t Raise Tuition (Read at The Atlantic)
CURRICULUM: Don’t Blame Teachers for Selling Their Lesson Plans. Blame the System That Makes It Necessary (Read at Education Week)
- Related: Meet the Etsy of Education: Online Marketplace Lets Teachers Buy — and Sell — Millions of Classroom Materials and Lessons
CORONAVIRUS: Tyner: What Happens If Coronavirus Shuts Down U.S. Schools? 5 Lessons in Emergency Distance Learning From China (Read at The 74)
RESEARCH: Are America’s Rising High School Graduation Rates Real — or Just an Accountability-Fueled Mirage? (Read at Brookings Institution)
What Else We’re Reading
SPECIAL EDUCATION: Dyslexia Is Not a Bad Word, Advocates Say. Schools Should Use It (Read at Education Week)
STUDENT HEALTH: Responding to Coronavirus: A Downloadable Guide for Schools (Read at Education Week)
EARLY ED: Inside a Preschool That Treats the Youngest Victims of the Opioid Crisis (Read at EdSurge)
EQUITY: Prep for Prep and the Fault Lines in New York’s Schools (Read at The New Yorker)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos struck a familiar note at a Senate hearing Thursday morning, arguing for President Trump’s 2020 budget request with a paean to local control and civic empowerment.
“Federal government spending does not determine everything that’s important to us,” she said before taking questions from members of the appropriations subcommittee on health and education. “Nor is it the only solution when we encounter challenges and opportunities. Instead, we the people overcome challenges and seize opportunities.”
The lines were identical to her opening remarks at a budget hearing at the House of Representatives last week, when she first spoke in defense of a proposal that would consolidate 29 federal education programs into a block grant to be disbursed to state governments. That gathering saw Democrats vent loudly about the administration’s proposal to create a $5 billion federal tax credit that could be used for private school scholarships; one member even called for DeVos’s resignation.
Cooler heads prevailed in the upper chamber, and the top lines of inquiry varied as well. Senate Democrats largely avoided the topic of school choice, instead steering the focus to the scope of DeVos’s requested cuts to the Department of Education. Several members also queried the secretary on the ongoing response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Though striking a measured tone throughout, the panel’s Democrats repeatedly returned to the administration’s proposed spending reductions. Near the end of questioning, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia pressed DeVos on the dissolution of McKinney-Vento funding for students experiencing homelessness.
“I’ve been a governor, so I understand block grants, and I understand flexibility,” he said, nevertheless asserting that the nearly $5 billion in potential cuts to the 29 programs would leave state officials “stymied” when responding to educational problems like homelessness.
“What you’re trying to say [is], there’s 29 programs, and your recommendation is reducing it $4.7 billion,” he said. “You’re saying that West Virginia should look at all these programs, how they service these kids in these 29 areas, and decide what we can do with less money?”
Throughout the morning, DeVos answered by arguing in favor of the new autonomies provided to governors by receiving block grant funding, which would allow them to redirect federal monies as they see fit. That rhetorical tack didn’t persuade Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz, who urged her to separate the issue of block granting from the billions of dollars in lost support for previously funded priorities.
“The fact is, your budget has a $4.7 billion cut, and the answer to the question, ‘Why did you cut education by $5 billion?’ cannot be as though you’re answering the question, ‘Why are you doing block grants?’” he said. “The basic question I have for you is, why cut $5 billion from public education?”
Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin pointedly asked about the effects of proposed reductions to Title IV spending on student support and enrichment. That spending, she noted, was often earmarked for student health and safety.
“By cutting funding that schools can use for student health, aren’t you making it harder for them to respond to these new demands, like the outbreak of the novel coronavirus? And have you done any sort of assessment of what those costs are going to be as we look at an all-government response to the coronavirus?”
“I think what the proposal suggests is that those closest to the students are best able to target the resources to the students that are most vulnerable in their area,” DeVos responded.
The coronavirus was a hot topic at the hearing, as districts have considered school closures to protect students and staff from the threat of a fast-spreading epidemic. Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley noted that schools in his home state were “desperate for guidance” on proper methods for ensuring student safety.
DeVos answered by referring to the department’s efforts to disseminate timely updates on public health as part of a cross-administration response to the emergency.
A working group established within the department, she said, “is in regular, frequent, multiple-times-daily contact with the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] for updates from them on the latest developments.”
Ranking Member Patty Murray, a Democrat from the state of Washington, called the growth of the sickness “truly a serious crisis,” noting that schools in her daughter’s district had already announced lengthy closures. Eleven people in the state have already died from the virus.
“The administration’s response so far, I have to tell you, has not inspired confidence, and there’s a lot more unknowns than knowns.”