Teacher Survey Highlights How the Pandemic Disrupted the Lives of Students and Educators — and the Challenges Districts Face in Reopening Campuses
With campuses closed nationwide, remote learning has become the norm in communities across the country and the vast majority of teachers are offering instruction online. But few students regularly attend the virtual classes, according to a new survey of public school teachers.
The survey, released Thursday by the nonprofit advocacy group Educators for Excellence, found that just 9 percent of teachers nationwide reported having daily student attendance above 90 percent. Perhaps more startlingly, a third of educators reported daily student participation of 50 percent or less.
Given COVID-19’s disruption to schools and its potential to cause widespread learning loss among students, teachers unsurprisingly have strong opinions about how the move to online education has worked so far — and what should come next. While most teachers support in-school remediation during the regular school day to address potential learning loss, for example, fewer than 1 in 5 favor a shorter summer break or longer school days.
Across the board, the survey revealed that the closures are having a far more negative impact on historically marginalized students, including children of color and those who live in poverty.
“Teachers predominantly serving students from low-income households are reporting particularly worrisome trends,” Sydney Morris, the group’s co-founder and co-CEO, said in a news release. “Educators’ experiences show that we will need to prioritize vulnerable students as we move forward.”
Addressing students’ “COVID slide,” however, may come with added pressures on teachers — and they’re already worried. Nearly half of teachers said they’re concerned about “unrealistic expectations” surrounding the push to get students back on track once campuses reopen.
The online survey of a nationally representative sample of 600 public school teachers was conducted in early May. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Here are some of the key takeaways:
1 For most teachers, online education has become the sole mode of instruction — but student participation is abysmal. Vulnerable children face a heightened risk of falling behind.
Almost all teachers — 95 percent — reported educating children through distance learning during the pandemic, with 80 percent saying they rely primarily on online tools to deliver instruction. Just 5 percent of teachers said they rely primarily on “traditional tools” like worksheets.
But ensuring student participation and engagement has been a struggle. In fact, just 9 percent of teachers reported having daily student attendance above 90 percent, while nearly a third reported daily student participation of 50 percent or less. Teachers reported markedly lower student participation in schools where the majority of children come from low-income households. In schools where two-thirds of children are impoverished, half of teachers reported daily student participation of 50 percent or less.
For many students, that downturn in participation has led to a decline in completed coursework. Just 2 percent of teachers said assignment completion rates are “much better than before” the pandemic, while 27 percent said it’s “much worse than before.” Again, assignment completion rates are far lower in schools with the largest shares of low-income students, the survey found.
The low participation and completion isn’t for a lack of trying, however. Nearly three-quarters of teachers said they spend more time reaching out to students and parents than they did before the transition to remote learning. But in order to better support students, about a third of teachers said they wish they had more time to spend on academic instruction and social-emotional support.
For many students, computer access has been a particular challenge. Only a quarter of teachers said that all of their students had access to a computer or a tablet for schoolwork.
Vulnerable children, including those who are homeless or disabled, are at a heightened risk of falling behind, the survey found. Just 21 percent of teachers reported that their schools are able to meet the needs of homeless students “often.” Just over half of teachers said the same about students of color.
2 The switch to remote instruction has also been a learning process for teachers. Most said they weren’t prepared.
Like students, teachers experienced major challenges in the switch to remote education, the survey found. Few reported having experience with distance learning prior to the outbreak. Teachers who work at charter schools, however, were twice as likely to report having a “great deal of experience” with online learning.
Teacher preparation programs didn’t provide enough help, with 67 percent of educators reporting that they weren’t prepared to adequately facilitate online learning. Since the pandemic closed campuses, however, most teachers — 64 percent — reported receiving professional development, which 88 percent said was “very” or “somewhat” relevant.
Navigating the new environment has been a challenge, but teachers have found one crucial outlet: each other. Nearly two-thirds of teachers said they’ve received “a great deal” of support from their colleagues during the pandemic, while just 27 percent said the same about their district or charter school network.
3 Teachers want added safety precautions in place before they return to their classrooms. But when campuses reopen, they’re most concerned about “unrealistic expectations.”
As lawmakers and school leaders weigh strategies to safely reopen campuses, teachers expect major changes to the school day, the survey found. In order to reopen, more than half of educators said, additional health and sanitation measures, such as regularly disinfecting classrooms and requiring people to wear masks, were their most important considerations. A similar share listed smaller class sizes and staggered schedules as top priorities.
Once students return, teachers advised that schools consider a range of strategies to get them back on track. While 60 percent of teachers said their districts should explore in-school remediation during the regular school day, a similar share supported tutoring and afterschool programs. Just 19 percent of teachers favor a shorter summer break and 16 percent favor longer school days.
Despite the need to combat learning loss, nearly half of teachers say they’re concerned about “unrealistic expectations” in helping students get back on track. In fact, teachers report, those expectations are more worrying than layoffs or physical health issues.
EdBuild Report: As Pandemic Threatens School Budgets, Researchers Urge Neighboring Districts to Pool Resources
Updated May 27
As the pandemic threatens state education budgets nationwide, a new report by the nonprofit EdBuild urges policymakers to embrace a new method of funding schools that could create equity while shielding districts from steep cuts.
Districts have long relied heavily on property taxes within their own borders to fund schools — a strategy that creates “a strong incentive” for affluent communities to maintain narrow boundaries that exclude their less fortunate neighbors, the education think tank argues. But if school districts pooled local funding at the county or state level and distributed it equally, a majority of America’s K-12 students would have access to better-funded schools without needing to raise taxes, according to the group, which for the past five years has highlighted education inequalities it claims are created by “arbitrary” school district borders.
With states struggling to fill funding gaps created by disparities in local wealth, low-income districts that rely most on state aid face a heightened risk of pandemic-induced funding cuts. This volatility in state education money has long been “an underappreciated flaw” in the way schools are funded, said Rebecca Sibilia, EdBuild’s founder and CEO.
“We are about to understand what a problem that [volatility] is at a level that we have never really understood in modern education history,” she said, adding that state budget cuts could force policymakers to make big changes. “I honestly do not see a way where we can get out of this coming crisis without doing something that substantially changes the way that we’re funding schools.”
Under the pooled funding strategy, more than 33 million children — roughly two-thirds of America’s K-12 students — would attend public schools with equal or greater funding, the analysis found. In total, the funding strategy would benefit a majority of students in 48 states, where most of the children would see an average per-pupil funding increase of nearly $1,000. Seventy-three percent of children of color and 76 percent of students from low-income households would see equal or greater funding under the strategy, researchers found.
The number of school districts nationwide has dropped precipitously over the past century, yet school districts still outnumber U.S. counties 4 to 1 — with wide variations in student enrollment and funding. Of the nearly 2,000 U.S. counties with more than one school district, the average school funding disparity between the wealthiest and poorest district totals more than $6,000 per student.
To illustrate its findings, EdBuild points to Canadian County in suburban Oklahoma City, home to 10 school districts — six of which serve fewer than 400 students each. The 8,500-student Yukon School District, where the median property value is about $150,000, raises $3,728 per pupil. Neighboring Banner Public Schools, where the median property value hovers above $235,000, raises more than $11,000 for each of its 234 students.
The school district in nearby Calumet fares even better. Because of revenue generated by wind farms, Calumet received more than $20,000 per student during the 2016-17 school year — “money that stays within the borders of a school district that educates just 244 students,” researchers found.
If the better-off districts in Canadian County pooled their local tax revenues, 95 percent of the county’s children would have access to better-funded schools, with the lowest-wealth district receiving an extra 36 percent.
But in Oklahoma and elsewhere, school district consolidation has long been politically contentious, even after a 2018 University of Central Oklahoma study found that the strategy could generate nearly $30 million in savings by reducing administrative costs.
“People really do feel connected to the idea that education is a local thing,” Sibilia said. “What we’re asking folks is to think about localism being just a little bigger than they now know it to be. We’re not asking them to look out for every kid in the country — we’re asking for them to look out for their neighbor.”
But pooling funding wouldn’t require communities to cede local control of their school districts, EdBuild argues. Rather than consolidating multiple school systems into one, communities could create independent tax boundaries that distribute funds equitably between districts while keeping their boundaries — and local decision-making — intact.
Though policymakers nationwide have long failed to address school funding gaps, Sibilia said that she hopes the pandemic ushers in a new urgency to combat education inequities.
“What I hope is that, in our coming season of famine, we may be willing to do what we knew was right all along,” she wrote in the report. “Our motivations no longer need to be the social good because they’ve become the financial reality.”
Coronavirus Must-Reads for Schools: Polls Show Parents Are Skittish About Trump’s Push to Reopen Campuses, Judging Claims of Ed Tech Companies, Graduating Into a Pandemic & 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.
When should schools open? Even at the highest levels of government, opinion is divided. Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading epidemiologist, warned of “little spikes” of climbing disease rates that “might turn into outbreaks” if states fail to meet federal guidelines before opening schools. President Trump called Fauci’s reply to lawmakers “not an acceptable answer” and reiterated that “we have to get the schools open, we have to get our country open.”
A new poll released Wednesday by Politico/Morning Consult suggests that more voters are on Team Fauci than Team Trump. Predictably, however, the results skew along political lines. In an online survey of roughly 2,000 registered voters, 41 percent called reopening K-12 schools in the fall a bad idea, but among those with a favorable view of Trump, 54 percent favored reopening elementary and high schools this fall.
Politics, perhaps as much as science, will play a huge role in determining when and where schools reopen. If the target is indeed the fall, district and state leaders have roughly three months to weave the many variables facing them into coherent plans. They have gotten a leg up from think tanks, national teachers unions and the federal Centers for Disease Control, all of which have released blueprints to guide reopening.
But as Education Dive noted in an analysis of those blueprints, many are more easily written than accomplished. For example, a Maryland plan calls for temperature screening checkpoints before students enter school, which Dan Domenech, executive director of the AASA, The School Superintendents Association, called an “an immense logistical issue” at a time when many schools have cut back on nurses. The biggest X factor may be academic: how to address the epic amount of lost learning due to students being at home for months. A survey by Education Week suggests that schools have been “all over the map” in terms of the rigor of their online instruction. As school winds to a close for the academic year, at least one state is trying to measure the depth of the trough. Texas is offering an end-of-year assessment to gauge the size of what has become known as the “COVID slide.” However, the test is optional and may therefore be of limited value.
Ed tech — Ed Tech Companies Promise Results, but Their Claims Are Often Based on Shoddy Research (Read at The Hechinger Report)
Stimulus — Why did The CARES Act Give More Money to Hair Schools Than to a Community College? (Read at NBC News)
Reading — Teaching Reading Was Hard Before a Pandemic. Now Chicago Teachers Walk a Tightrope of Technology and Attention (Read at Chalkbeat)
Pandemic lessons — An American Principal in Africa Is Using Lessons From the Ebola Epidemic to Confront COVID-19. U.S. Educators Can Learn From Him (Read at The74Million.org)
Class pets — Who’ll Take the Tortoise? What Happens to Classroom Pets During the Lockdown (Read at NPR)
Parents and Families
The Class of 2020: Graduating Into a Pandemic (Read at The Washington Post)
Youngest Learners Prepare to Start School — Without the School: Summer Transition Activities Help Acclimate 5-Year-Olds to the Classroom. Can a Remote Version Even Come Close? (Read at Education Dive)
Still Trying to Get a Handle on Schooling From Home? Home-Schoolers Know a Thing or Two (Read at the Los Angeles Times)
‘It’s Working Fantastically’: Two Parents on Adjusting to Their Lockdown Role of Proxy Teacher (Read at The Guardian)
With School Buildings Closed, Children’s Mental Health Is Suffering (Read at NPR)
Helping Students Grieve From a Distance (Read at Education Week)
From NYC Parents to Principals, Mayor De Blasio’s Decision During COVID-19 to Fill Teacher Openings From Troubled Absent Teacher Reserve Sparks Worries (Read at The74Million.org)
39,000 NYC Students With Disabilities Attend School Year-Round. Their Parents Are Bracing for the Summer (Read at Chalkbeat)
Oral History — 5 School Leaders, 4 Weeks & the Biggest Education Crisis of Their Careers: How San Antonio Marshalled Its Early Forces to Face the Coronavirus Shutdown (Read at The74Million.org)
Equity and Activism
Low Attendance and COVID-19 Have Ravaged D.C.’s Poorest Schools. Fall Will Be About Reconnecting (Read at The Washington Post)
Closing the Digital Divide: Inside Cleveland’s Plan to Treat Broadband Like a Public Utility Service — and to Pay for Every Student to Get Online (Read at The74Million.org)
For Some LGBTQ Youth, School Buildings Were Safer Spaces Than Their Homes. Now, They Have Nowhere to Go. (Read at Chalkbeat)
In Montgomery County, Schools and Parents Clash Over How Much Teachers and Students Are Connecting (Read at The Washington Post)
Essays and Reflections
During Lockdown, Google Maps Gives My Son a Way Out From Our Kitchen in Queens: He Had Created a Paracosm — a Fantasyland. And His Journey Has Led Him Not to Mordor but to Minor-League Baseball Stadiums. (Read at Wired)
Where’s the Rallying Cry? America’s Children Are Unequally Prepared to Absorb The Impacts of COVID-19 (Read at Brookings)
Rotherham: From Homeschooling to the Digital Divide to Philanthropy, 10 Questions About COVID-19 and the Future of Education (Read at The74Million.org)
The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations (Read at The New Yorker)
Worst. Summer Break. Ever. How One D.C. Third-Grader Is Bracing for the Pain of Quarantine Without the Pleasure of School (Read at The74Million.org)
“When I am missing two thirds of my kids each day, there is a ceiling to how well it can go. But I am proud of what we have done and how the school is responding. We’re making the most of a bad situation.” —Jonathan Faber, who teaches English and social studies to recent immigrants at Coolidge High in Washington, D.C. (Read at The Washington Post)
“My initial reaction was concern. In this moment, we are seeing that issues of equity become more entrenched. What we know about the ATR is that placement has disproportionately been in educational settings that are already disadvantaged. [These educators have been] going disproportionately into schools that have high needs and a high percentage of black and brown children.” —Paula White, the executive director of Educators for Excellence’s New York office, on plans to dip into the city’s infamous Absent Teacher Reserve to make up for teacher staffing shortfalls. (Read at The74Million.org)
“I understand there are equity issues. But I think there’s a way to have things fair and still provide more of a learning experience than kids are getting now.” —Brian Krantz, parent of a 12-year-old daughter in Montgomery County, Maryland. (Read at The Washington Post)
“We’d still have to have a robust online presence, because if there were to be a second wave or another outbreak, or if it were to become seasonal, the virtual has to be embedded in the school psyche.” —Jeff Trudeau, director of the American International School of Monrovia in Liberia, which was shuttered during the Ebola epidemic, on preparing for the fall. (Read at The74Million.org)
“I worry about the two frogs the most. They have the most care involved.” —Mary Pfeifer, New York City teacher, in an email to parents, asking who would be willing to invite classroom pets into their homes during the pandemic. (Read at NPR)
District, Charter & Private School Leaders — Two of Them at the Pandemic’s NYC Epicenter — Rally to Offer Students Social-Emotional Support Remotely
Learning during COVID-19 has been a relentless uphill battle, the likes of which most students, families and educators hadn’t yet seen in their lifetimes. Parents around the country have lost their jobs; others have lost their lives. Families are struggling to feed their children, never mind homeschool them.
In New York City, the site of the nation’s biggest school district and the epicenter of the pandemic, those challenges are being felt most acutely in poor communities, where residents are dying at more than twice the rate of their wealthy neighbors, according to data released May 19 by the Health Department.
Online learning is no substitute for the support that teachers can provide in person. So how can schools address the social and emotional needs of kids at a time when teachers and students have been forced apart?
“Obviously, [remote learning] is not the same as being able to give a kid a hug or walk a kid around the hallway,” said Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy, the city’s biggest charter school network. “How do we keep kids positive, how do we keep kids motivated, how do we keep kids having a sense of control, even though the world around them is spiraling from a health perspective and an economic perspective?”
Moskowitz was joined by Kathleen Porter-Magee, superintendent of Partnership Schools, a network of seven Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx, and Juan Cabrera, superintendent of El Paso Independent School District in Texas, to address how their schools are supporting students during the pandemic. They convened at a webinar Friday, moderated by Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, and sponsored by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
74 Interview: CASEL President on the Importance of Maintaining Quality in Social-Emotional Learning, Paying Attention to the Adults and Work as the Next SEL Frontier
Once the coronavirus hit, the first challenge the three administrators confronted was making initial contact with students.
The week of March 12, Cabrera formed a task force within his administration and enlisted the help of the United Way and local mental health organizations to connect with the district’s 55,000 families. After the first couple of weeks, there were still about 17,000 students who were unaccounted for. As of last Friday, he said, that number was down to 114.
Next, Cabrera and his team asked a series of questions that addressed life beyond academics. “We wanted to know how they were doing … Have they faced any trauma, has their situation changed? Do they need help at all?” Cabrera says the team made sure to mention the nonprofits they had partnered with, including the local food bank, El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, in case families needed those resources.
Teacher of the Year Mandy Manning Leading El Paso ‘Teach-In’ This Weekend, Protesting Trump Administration’s Child Detention Policies
Moskowitz explained that efforts to stay in touch with students since the pandemic began have been fueled largely by the relationships teachers had been working to build with their students for the first seven months of the school year.
At Success Academy, a network of 18,000 students in grades K-12, that meant 64,000 meetings in a week, Moskowitz said, with principals, teachers and school psychologists reaching out to have one-on-one conversations with students. It also means listening carefully for calls for help — for instance, if a student reports that his or her friend is struggling with anxiety.
Success Academy Goes Virtual: New York City’s Largest Charter Network Shares How It’s Restructuring to Provide Online Learning
School leaders who had already distributed technology among their students before the coronavirus struck were at an advantage because it gave them a way to stay in touch with students. In El Paso, for instance, Cabrera had already given all sixth- through 12th-grade students take-home devices in 2018.
Cabrera, Moskowitz and Porter-Magee explained that they’ve had to reimagine the role that school plays in the lives of students.
“We are half a social services agency and half an academic institution now,” the El Paso schools chief said.
“We always have been serving poor kids, but the volume of challenges is at a decibel level that we’re not used to,” Moskowitz added. Among the issues her students have faced are not having enough food, running into dental problems and having their glasses break.
Porter-Magee has tried to alleviate pressure on families in her network by creating a COVID-19 Family Relief Fund for members of the community whose lives have been disrupted by the disease. Parents, grandparents and primary caretakers can apply to receive grants of up to $500 to offset job loss or unexpected medical costs.
“We want to empower students and give them agency,” Porter-Magee said.
An ‘Alienated America’ Needs Community-Building Schools — Something Catholic Schools Have Been Doing for Generations
All three school leaders emphasized the importance of supporting teachers in their own pursuit of social and emotional well-being so that they can better assist their students in turn. Porter-Magee explained that, for her network, virtual community Mass and prayer have played a critical role: ”With all the hardship that families are going through, drawing strength through faith is really important.” Moskowitz said Success Academy has provided its teachers with a series of workshops on topics ranging from getting enough sleep to nutrition, to mindfulness and yoga.
Students need more opportunities to connect with each other and their teachers throughout the school day, all three said. Moskowitz has split classroom morning meetings for the youngest students in half so that teachers can pay more attention to individual kids. Cabrera said his district has moved most of its extracurriculars online. High school bands have performed concerts online; coaches are leading workouts over Zoom. Cabrera is also expanding the district’s usual summer school for remediation to all students so that teachers can stay in touch with kids.
One of Porter-Magee’s principals had a novel idea for connecting with students — on a recent morning, she asked the kids to submit written responses explaining how they were feeling that day: red if they were scared, yellow if they were frustrated, or green if they were happy.
Checking in with students about trauma, how they’re feeling and the unfolding pandemic is “every bit as important, and maybe more important, than academics at this time,” Cabrera said.
The path forward is murky. Cabrera, Moskowitz, Porter-Magee and their staff have been staying in touch with students after spending over half of a year laying the necessary groundwork in person. This fall, however, schools might still be operating remotely, including in New York City, leaving teachers in the position of welcoming new students with whom they haven’t already forged a connection.
As a result, Petrilli said, “we may have an even bigger mountain to climb next year.”
Disclosure: Campbell Brown sits on Success Academy’s board of directors. Brown co-founded The 74 and sits on its board of directors.
How Supreme Court’s Recent ‘Bridgegate’ Decision Figures Into Former Puerto Rico Education Secretary’s Defense in Fraud Case
Less than two weeks ago, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions of two defendants caught up in the “Bridgegate” scandal, which derailed the political aspirations of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Now, attorneys are seizing upon the court’s decision to defend Puerto Rico’s former education chief, Julia Keleher, who has twice been indicted on fraud charges.
In court documents filed Monday related to the first case, Keleher attorneys argued that the charges against the former education secretary should be dropped because they claim she didn’t seek to personally benefit from an alleged scheme to steer government contracts to politically connected consulting firms. In total, Keleher and five others — including the former head of Puerto Rico’s health insurance administration and an executive with a major accounting firm — were accused of conspiring to direct more than $15 million in contracts through corrupted bidding, rather than fair and transparent processes. Keleher has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which include wire fraud and conspiracy to commit theft.
Keleher served as Puerto Rico’s education secretary from 2017 until early last year. Less than a year into the job, Puerto Rico’s school system was devastated by Hurricane Maria, a tragedy Keleher drew on to close hundreds of schools and usher in controversial new education reforms, including charter schools and private school vouchers.
In her July 2019 indictment, prosecutors made no allegation that Keleher intended to deprive anybody of money or property, or to personally benefit — making the Bridgegate controversy relevant to her case.
Exclusive: Ex-Puerto Rico Schools Chief Julia Keleher, Indicted in Corruption Probe, Previously Denied She Was Federal Target
The Bridgegate scandal stems back to 2013, when officials closed commuter lanes on the George Washington Bridge between New Jersey and New York to punish a mayor who refused to endorse Christie’s re-election bid. Christie has never faced criminal charges for the incident and has denied knowledge of the plan, but two of his associates were sentenced to prison. In a unanimous decision earlier this month, the Supreme Court overturned those wire fraud convictions because the Christie associates didn’t “aim to obtain money or property” though the evidence “no doubt shows wrongdoing,” including deception, corruption and abuse of power. “But the federal fraud statutes at issue do not criminalize all such conduct,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court.
Keleher attorneys used a similar line of reasoning. The charges against Keleher amount to a “legally deficient theory of honest services fraud,” her defense attorneys wrote in court filings, and aim to recast the allegations as “traditional money or property wire fraud.”
As the Bridgegate ruling affirmed, the federal wire fraud statute does not extend to all alleged acts of dishonesty by state or local officials. At most, the charges against Keleher allege she interfered with “a fair and open procurement process not corrupted by improper motivations or influence,” attorneys argued. But such an allegation “cannot serve as the predicate for the offenses charged, which require an intent to deprive a victim of money or property.”
Complicated Crusader to Accused Federal Conspirator: Ex-Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher’s ‘Surreal’ Journey
Reached by phone Monday, Keleher declined to comment for this story, citing a gag order that prohibits her from discussing the case. Maria Dominguez, Keleher’s attorney, reiterated in a statement that the charges against the former education secretary should be dropped because they lack “a single allegation” that her actions were motivated “by a desire to benefit herself.” Dominguez leads Keleher’s star-studded defense team, whose clients have included WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling. Attorney Lanny Davis, who has represented former president Bill Clinton and Harvey Weinstein, also worked briefly on Keleher’s defense.
Not mentioned in the motion to dismiss, however, is Keleher’s second indictment from January, which accused her of offering up public school land in exchange for help buying a luxury apartment. Those charges include bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit honest services fraud.
Take Two: Julia Keleher, Former Puerto Rico Education Secretary, Indicted in Second Round of Corruption Charges
The Education Pandemic: Inside Our New Reporting Initiative to Track Cities, Schools and Student Learning Through the Crisis
This was not how 2020 was supposed to go.
This year was going to be the year of rethinking student safety, of redesigning student assessments, of retooling student discipline and of revisiting school choice. There was hope that 2020 would bring innovations and even more captivating solutions to the table in a way that afforded every child a fighting chance at a quality education — and thus a better life. There was an anticipation for depoliticizing education — at least a little — so that the policies coming from the top better served those on the ground living with those policies every day. And in just the second week of January, I found myself sitting with fellow editors in the bustling lobby of a New York City hotel discussing how 2020 was going to be a much better year than the last.
Eight weeks later, the coronavirus was spreading through the United States and life as we knew it screeched to a halt. Tens of thousands were dying. Millions lost their jobs. Schools shuttered. Student safety was no longer about protecting children and educators from armed attacks but from an invisible force that no one understood. There were no more year-end exams to redesign, and there were certainly no more students or teachers on the ground in classrooms. Almost overnight, a bird’s-eye view of education in America morphed from disparate issues of academics, accountability, equity and more into a singular matter of life or death.
We wanted to know what was coming in 2020, but we could not have planned for this.
This cataclysmic crisis has changed things for us here at The 74. While we are an education newsroom, we realize that the coverage of education in America can no longer be just about the issues that fall vertically under the umbrella of “education.” Now, more than ever, education journalism must span the breadth of sectors that intersect across our communities.
But great triumph can come from great tragedy, and much of the work that is being done to innovate and adapt our education system to a time of crisis is happening more intensely in localities than it has in the past three decades. We are already beginning to see leadership rise up from pockets around the country. Nuanced insights into how students learn and clever solutions that bring into focus the indispensable role of our education system are emerging from the bottom up, rather than from the federal government on down.
That is why today we are launching the Pandemic Reporting Initiative at The74Million.org/PANDEMIC. This new vertical features dispatches from a talented team of seasoned reporters from across the country who will dive into the characters who are instrumental to the reshaping of the American education system, shine a light on what is working despite long odds and nearly impossible circumstances, and broaden our scope of education coverage to tell larger truths about how education is intensely woven into the fabric of our country. PANDEMIC will also serve to connect communities that are experiencing and recovering from this crisis in vastly different ways and paces.
At The74Million.org/PANDEMIC, you can follow our coverage from Bekah McNeel on San Antonio, Taylor Swaak on Washington, D.C., Beth Hawkins on New Orleans, Zoë Kirsch on New York City and Patrick O’Donnell on Cleveland. The vertical will be edited by myself and JoAnne Wasserman in New York, and will also include contributions from The 74’s broader reporting staff as they cover these and other cities and states.
The work that we do in education journalism hinges on human connections. When that essential element was uprooted as a threat to global health, this team didn’t miss a beat to take virtual the shoe-leather reporting that is so essential to local journalism — and that informs the rest of the country.
Through that work, we see how the pandemic has cast the flaws in the modern education system into stark relief. The coronavirus has offered an unparalleled snapshot of the disparities that are widening in America between the haves and the have-nots. It is illustrated by the third-grader in Washington, D.C., who is pained by the prospect of missing out on his beloved summer break; by the families in New York who are uncertain of what happens to middle and high school admissions now without test scores to submit; by the school leaders in New Orleans pleading with lawmakers for accountability forgiveness for the sake of families’ stability; by the educators in San Antonio who uncovered ingenuity, solidarity and care as they navigated the first four weeks of shutdown; and by the administrators and nonprofits in Cleveland who want to make Wi-Fi a free public good. It is heard in three dimensions (in this site’s first-ever podcasts) by the voices of parents across the country who have endless questions about their children’s present and future.
This is a crisis that will extend well beyond 2020 — and so, too, will our coverage. While the coronavirus forced our education system into a frenzied grab bag of implementing ad hoc solutions to keep students learning, it also gave rise to a new urgency to rethink and reshape the American education system as a whole. This is why we named this vertical PANDEMIC. The response in American education to the coronavirus has a long road ahead, and how that response evolves into a blueprint for education in times of crises will be a testament to the durability, adaptability and effectiveness of our system far into the future.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote in a 1950 letter to a U.S. diplomat, “Peace-time plans are of no particular value, but peace-time planning is indispensable.” The granular points of a plan made years in advance are often rendered irrelevant come time for battle, but the planning process demands due diligence and preparation for contingencies, which become key data points in decision-making as future events unfold.
As states and districts map out their plans to ensure that we are equipped with the resources and infrastructure to provide our children with a quality education through and out of disasters like this one, The 74’s PANDEMIC team will be here to report on, connect and synthesize them. They will spend at least the next year exploring how innovative solutions and strategic planning across the country that tackle equity, safety, mental health, standards, accountability — and the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — are approached from a completely new lens. They will tell the stories of those who are changing and saving lives, one student at a time. They will report critically on how the new American education will seek to ensure that we have the workforce necessary for our health care system, our judiciary, our economy and our society as a whole.
It is with excitement and a very heavy heart that we launch this new vertical to share the stories of Americans impacted by this crisis, to shed light on what’s working — and what’s not — and to offer hope through a time of uncertainty. This was not how 2020 was supposed to go, but we can certainly shape where it goes from here.
We hope you’ll bookmark and follow The74Million.org/PANDEMIC.
Rich School, Poor School: As Recession Looms, Test Results Show That Affluent Students Score Higher in Financial Literacy
As the U.S. economy hurtles into recession, new test results indicate that a sizable portion of students demonstrate only rudimentary knowledge of personal finance. Large gaps also exist along socioeconomic lines, with students attending predominantly low-income schools falling far behind their peers in more affluent communities.
The financial literacy scores are one component of the Programme for International Student Assessment, a well-known exam that compares adolescents from dozens of education systems around the world. Thousands of adolescents are assessed on the core subjects of reading, mathematics and science every three years, but finance has been included since 2012 as an optional testing domain.
Released earlier this month, scores from the 2018 PISA show American students falling in the middle of the pack internationally, with an average score of 506 out of 1,000 — virtually identical to the average for participating countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the intergovernmental entity that administers PISA. The U.S. ranked behind Estonia, Finland, Canada and Poland, but greatly outperformed non-OECD states like Serbia, Brazil and Indonesia. Scores for American students showed no measurable improvement since the test’s first iteration, in 2012.
At the time of the test’s introduction, the world economy was still recovering from the shock of the Great Recession, which resulted from the bursting of a speculative bubble around real estate investment. Many pinned the blame on the public’s ignorance of economic realities — as evidenced by the elevated consumer demand for high-risk mortgages and financial products — and called for more instruction that would provide young people with the skills needed to make responsible decisions with money.
In the years that followed, fears grew that millennials were entering adulthood on worse economic footing than their parents and grandparents, forced into debt by college loans and taking longer to hit life milestones like marriage and homeownership.
Now financial and labor markets are faltering once again, as fears over the COVID-19 pandemic have forced businesses to close and put tens of millions out of work. Just days after the PISA results were published, new statistics from the Department of Labor showed that the unemployment rate had soared to nearly 15 percent, higher than even the worst months of the Great Recession.
Record-Breaking Coronavirus Job Losses Devastate the Least Educated — and Have Already Displaced Highest Degree Holders Worse Than the Great Recession
For the 2018 PISA, thousands of American 15-year-olds were assessed on their knowledge of fundamental financial skills and concepts. Test takers were asked to examine sample invoices, chart stock prices over time and identify a fallacious request for personal information from a scam artist purporting to be a bank. Students scoring at Level Five, the highest proficiency level, could apply their knowledge in a range of contexts and account for unfamiliar phenomena like the income tax; those at Level One could make simple decisions, like differentiating between needs and wants, but were much less practiced with more complex financial calculations.
Overall, 12 percent of American students were grouped into Level Five, while 16 percent fell into Level One. As is common in standardized tests like PISA, disparities existed among racial groups: White and Asian American students scored above the U.S. average, while black and Hispanic students scored below.
Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, noted on a media call that class distinctions were even more stark. The average student score in a low-income school (i.e., one in which more than 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch) was nearly 100 points lower than the average in a high-income school (one in which fewer than 25 percent of students qualify).
“Socioeconomic status really does matter,” Carr told reporters.
The results are one reflection of differential exposure to work, money and credit during the K-12 years. Surveys indicate that children from more affluent families are more likely to have access to a credit card — often as a strategy to build their credit from an early age. At a time of long-term decline for youth employment, wealthy kids are also more likely to hold summer jobs.
Fewer Teens Are Working — and One Senator Says Falling Youth Employment Will Cost America $9.5 Billion
At the same time, research suggests that education could provide a useful tool. A recently circulated meta-analysis of 76 randomized studies found that financial literacy instruction improved financial knowledge and behaviors for participants in 33 countries. Young people, including students under the age of 14, were shown to benefit in areas like saving and budgeting, and high school finance education yielded a range of later-life advantages.
“High school personal finance graduation requirements … show that financial education reduces non-student debt, increases credit scores, reduces default rates, shifts student loan borrowing from high-interest to low-interest methods, increases student loan repayment rates, reduces payday loan borrowing for young adults, and increases bank account ownership for those with only high school education,” the authors wrote.
Carr noted that the overwhelming majority of PISA test takers reported that they received financial information from their families, though nearly half said that they hardly ever spoke with their parents about financial or economic news. Given the evidence around the effectiveness of financial education, she said, that represented “a missed opportunity.”
“These data show that it is possible to better prepare students than we have for their financial futures, [including] students from less affluent backgrounds,” Carr concluded.
New Democratic ‘Unity Task Forces’ Include Education Adviser Who Previously Railed Against Biden’s ‘So-Called School Reform Agenda’
Democrats revealed their latest effort to mend the wounds of a hard-fought presidential primary Wednesday, rolling out a series of working groups to advise Joe Biden on key 2020 issues. But if anything can be gleaned from the panel convened on education — co-chaired by a prominent Biden detractor who has previously lambasted the vice president’s school policies — there will likely be some awkward moments on the way to reconciliation.
Biden and erstwhile primary opponent Bernie Sanders announced the creation of six “Unity Task Forces,” drawing members from both the party’s left and mainstream liberal wings. The move was previewed in April, when Sanders suspended his campaign following an acrimonious fight for the presidential nomination. The groups are meant to devise consensus policy proposals on the economy, climate change, education, health care, criminal justice and immigration.
“A united party is key to defeating Donald Trump this November and moving our country forward through an unprecedented crisis,” Biden said in a statement. “The work of the task forces will be essential to identifying ways to build on our progress and not simply turn the clock back to a time before Donald Trump, but transform our country.”
Each group pairs Biden and Obama loyalists with activists and lawmakers from Sanders’s progressive insurgency. The most prominent Sanders ally tapped was U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will lead the committee on climate change with former secretary of state (and devoted Biden surrogate) John Kerry.
Unsurprisingly, the education task force includes the heads of the country’s two largest teachers unions, Lily Eskelsen García of the National Education Association and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers. After chafing against the education reform policies of the Obama-Biden White House, both women had visible roles as education advisers to 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Judging from the tenor of the 2020 Democratic primary, which saw Biden and other candidates distance themselves from charter schools and standardized testing, Biden’s general election platform will hasten the party’s movement away from the school reform agenda.
But the group’s leadership may raise eyebrows within the party. Alongside U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, who joined a swell of party figures endorsing Biden ahead of his decisive victories on Super Tuesday, the panel will be co-chaired by Sanders senior adviser Heather Gautney.
Gautney, a Fordham University sociologist and former executive director of Sanders’s political action group Our Revolution, supported the Vermont senator’s long-shot bid against Clinton in 2016, later penning a laudatory book about the campaign. She was also an unsparing critic of Biden during the late stages of this year’s primary, frequently taking to Twitter to accuse him of dishonesty and betrayal of progressive causes.
In March, when Biden had clinched an insurmountable delegate lead over Sanders — his sole remaining opponent — Gautney recommended that Sanders fight on until the Democratic National Convention in July. Many in the party believe that Sanders’s decision to prolong his campaign in 2016 did lasting damage to Hillary Clinton by preventing the party from coalescing earlier to defeat Donald Trump.
As the Biden-Sanders contest wound on, Gautney also accused Biden repeatedly of obfuscating his legislative record, saying that he had “LIED on TV in front of millions of viewers” about his previous stances on Social Security. When the vice president announced that he intended to select a female running mate, she mused that he might choose Sarah Palin or Condoleezza Rice. The commitment, she wrote, was “NOT a win for women,” retweeting an earlier post by a Twitter user named “Joe Biden’s dementia” that claimed the former Delaware senator had “voted like Paul Ryan on abortion.”
She has also attacked the Democratic nominee specifically on education. In an op-ed for the Marxist website Jacobin, Gautney accused Biden of helping to advance the “so-called school reform agenda” by favoring the expansion of charter schools as vice president.
“Years of thwarting desegregation efforts, pushing privatization, and imposing high-stakes testing make it clear that Joe Biden cannot be trusted to defend our public schools,” she concluded.
While she is now charged with uniting the party’s two ideological factions, Gautney has also voiced skepticism about mainstream Democratic players, arguing that “corporate Dems” didn’t grasp “why [Bernie’s] supporters would rather sit it out than support a conservative candidate like Biden.”
WATCH — Dr. Fauci Warns Schools May Not Be Ready to Reopen in August; Says Any Hopes for Coronavirus Treatments by Fall May Be ‘Bridge Too Far’
“All roads back to work and back to school run through [coronavirus] testing,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander at a Tuesday committee hearing that featured the testimony of several public-health officials in addressing issues around the nation safely getting back to jobs and classrooms. “What our country has done so far on testing is impressive, but not nearly enough.”
Questions surrounding the reopening of college campuses and K-12 school districts arose time and again during Tuesday’s hearing, which featured Dr. Anthony Fauci, who leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Admiral Brett Giroir, testing czar at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The most noteworthy exchange occurred between Sen. Alexander and Dr. Fauci:
Here’s a condensed transcript of that Tuesday exchange:
Sen. Alexander: Let’s look down the road three months. There will be about 5,000 campuses across the country trying to welcome 20 million college students. And 100,000 public schools welcoming 50 million students. What would you say to the chancellor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, or the principal of a public school about how to persuade parents and students to return to school in August?
Dr. Fauci: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Well, I would be very realistic with the chancellor and tell … her that in this case that the idea of having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate the re-entry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of a bridge too far.
As I mentioned, the drug that has shown some degree of efficacy was modest and was in hospitalized patients [and has] not yet — or [may never be] — used either as prophylaxis or treatment. So, if the issue is that the young individuals that have begun going back to school would like to have some comfort in that there’s a treatment, probably the thing that would be closest to utilization, then, would likely be the passive transfer of convalescent serum.
But we’re really not talking about necessarily treating a student who gets ill, but how the student will feel safe in going back to school. If this were a situation where we had a vaccine, that would really be the end of that issue, in a positive way. But as I mentioned in my opening remarks, even at the top speed we’re going, we don’t see a vaccine playing in the ability of individuals to get back to school this term.
What they really want is to know if they are safe. And that’s the question that will have to do with what we discussed earlier — about testing. I’d like to just pass the baton to Admiral Giroir, who would address the question of the availability of testing and what role that might play in returning to school.
Sen. Alexander: Thank you, Dr. Fauci. Admiral Giroir, you said that while we’re doing about 10 million tests this month, that we might be as high as 40 or 50 million a month by September, which is a significant increase. So, if I’m chancellor of the University of Tennessee, could I develop a strategy where I’d say to all my students: “We have antigen tests, which are quick and easy.” Do you want everybody on campus to come by and take it once before [they get to campus]? That would at least let everybody know that on that day, we’ve isolated anyone who has been positive and then we can continue to monitor.
Is that strategy possible in August and September?
Analysis — A Blueprint for Reopening America’s Schools This Fall: 21 Former Education Chiefs Identify 6 Top Priorities for Districts & Statehouses in Returning Amid Coronavirus
Admiral Giroir: The strategy that’s going to be employed really depends heavily on what the community spread is at that time. If there’s almost no community spread, your strategy will be different. If there’s high community spread, it will also be different. But yes, technically we will have the ability and your chancellor will have the ability. We expect there to be 25 to 30 million point-of-care tests per month available. It’s certainly possible to test all of the students, or it is much more likely that there would be a surveillance strategy done where you may test some of the students at different times, to give an assurance that there’s no circulation. That would be done in conjunction with the CDC and the local health department.
There’s also strategies that are still needing to be validated, like pooling samples. We know that in some experimental labs that as many as 10 or 20 samples can be pooled. Essentially one test could test 20 students. And finally, there are some experimental approaches that look interesting, if not promising, where, for example, wastewater from an entire dorm or from an entire segment of a campus could be tested to determine whether there’s coronavirus in that sewage.
Dr. Redfield: Just some quick comments: First, I think it’s really important to evaluate critically the role of changes in social distancing on college campuses and schools, and not to forget the importance of what we’ve learned. Clearly, also developing an aggressive program for wellness education — making sure people understand when they’re symptomatic and need to seek evaluation. I think we’re going to have to look at the role of testing. I think there is going to be an important role of testing, in these circumstances, and I think it will be individualized based on where these different schools are and how much infection is in the area.
New Poll: Two-Thirds of Parents Support Keeping Schools Closed ‘Until They Are Certain There Is No Health Risk’
With more than 50 million students out of school because of the coronavirus pandemic, a new poll finds that 67 percent of parents support continued closures until officials are certain that reopening will not pose a health risk.
The findings come as President Trump continues to encourage states to consider reopening and as nearly half of parents, 45 percent, acknowledge that their children are learning less than they normally would when attending school.
That makes sense, said Keri Rodrigues, a co-founder and the founding president of the National Parents Union, the educational advocacy network that commissioned the poll.
“Families want to put health and safety first, and until [officials] are really thinking through what [reopening] means and how that’s possible, and frankly, until you invite parents to the table so that we can help be a part of that process, we’re not ready to send our kids back,” she said.
Echelon Insights conducted the online survey of 500 parents between May 4 and May 5. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
The National Parents Union launched in January with affiliates in every state, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. The group is intentionally inclusive — explicitly welcoming, for instance, grandparents and formerly incarcerated parents — and aims to broaden parent involvement and help parents reach policymakers.
Mothers of Invention: Frustrated With the Educational Status Quo and Conventional Parent Organizing, Two Latinas Gave Birth to a National Parents Union
Rodrigues, who once hosted a radio talk show, now goes live each weekday from her Massachusetts home, where she’s been under lockdown with her partner and five boys between the ages of 7 and 12. She said the poll findings reflect the concerns she’s heard during her broadcasts: With a vaccine likely at least a year from being available, parents are willing to keep their children home indefinitely if schools cannot safeguard students.
“Absolutely,” said Rodrigues, speaking the same day she said she lost a family member to COVID-19. “Frankly, a lot of the skepticism comes from the fact that I don’t have a lot of trust in these systems because they were underserving my kids, who are Latino, in pre-COVID times. You can bet I’m going to be very skeptical when they tell me not to worry about this.”
Just 22 percent of parents surveyed agreed that “schools should reopen as soon as possible so students don’t fall too far behind and can receive the educational support they need.” When parents were asked specifically about economically disadvantaged students who “may be more at risk of falling behind academically and need additional support,” only 30 percent favored the idea of sending those students back before other students.
As COVID-19 Keeps Most Schools Shuttered for the Rest of the Year, a Growing Number in Wyoming and Montana Partially Reopen
Since late April, President Trump has twice called for schools to open as soon as possible, even “if it’s for a very short period of time” and even if it means teachers age 60 and over, who are more at risk, do not yet return. On April 27, Trump told a group of governors, “Some of you might start thinking about school openings because a lot of people are wanting to have the school openings.”
When students do return to school, most parents do not want to go back to the status quo. By a nearly two-to-one margin, parents said schools should be focused on rethinking how they educate students. Even more parents — 85 percent — expressed support for sending out alerts to all parents if any student or educator becomes ill. The poll was conducted before a 5-year-old boy died Thursday in New York City from COVID-related complications. As more children fall ill — five children in New York state have now died and 93 are sickened — parents’ views on reopening schools could change.
‘An Unknown They’ve Never Experienced Before’: As Coronavirus Death Toll Grows Among NYC Teachers and Staff, Union Support Team Ramps Up Its Efforts
Of five options that could help students once schools do reopen, parents were least supportive of extending the school day, with 53 percent in support and 38 percent in opposition.
Looking ahead, Rodrigues said she hopes policymakers engage with parents and realize just how much is riding on the decision about when — and how — to reopen schools.
“If our schools are not open and our children cannot go to school, people cannot go to work,” she said. “This has got to be a collaborative thought process.”
Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation, The City Fund, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provide financial support to the National Parents Union and The 74.
Record-Breaking Coronavirus Job Losses Devastate the Least Educated — and Have Already Displaced Highest Degree Holders Worse Than the Great Recession
An ominous reality was made clear in the Department of Labor’s new employment figures Friday morning: Unprecedented job losses hit the least educated the hardest, but even those with higher degrees weren’t protected from the downturn.
Just months ago, the United States was celebrating “the longest economic recovery in history,” marked by record-low joblessness among those without a high school diploma or a bachelor’s degree. Unemployment had dipped below the rates seen in the internet-fueled boom of the 1990s, and even low-wage workers were beginning to collect bigger paychecks after a decade of slow growth.
Then came COVID-19, erasing a decade of progress within weeks. When the Class of 2020 walks across the stage in a month’s time, they will be graduating into the most volatile labor market in memory — and the damage is being absorbed even by highly educated professionals.
After weeks of soaring unemployment applications at the state level, the report was the first to show a full month’s look at the extent of the pandemic’s wreckage: Total unemployment soared from 4.4 percent in March to 14.7 percent in April as the dawning recession culled 20.5 million jobs. Even the worst months of the Great Recession, which unfolded over more than a year, never approached such depths.
Look closer, though, and the news becomes even more alarming. While the financial crisis of 2008 put millions out of work for years at a time, the damage was felt less acutely by those with post-secondary education. Unemployment for those with bachelor’s degrees or more, for instance, never climbed above 5 percent during the Great Recession; those who completed some amount of college, or who held an associate’s degree, peaked at 8.9 percent unemployment.
Just three months into the coronavirus outbreak, jobless numbers for those workers are looking far worse. Americans with limited college were coasting at 3.7 percent unemployment in March; today, 15 percent of them are unemployed. Those with a bachelor’s degree or higher have hit 8.4 percent unemployment. Men and women with advanced credentials, such as master’s degrees or doctorates — a rarefied and highly coveted sliver of the workforce — are now experiencing 6.2 percent unemployment, a rate significantly higher than those with only a bachelor’s degree during the last recession.
And yet the highly educated are still comparatively fortunate. One-sixth of all employees who have completed only high school are now out of work, along with one-fifth of those lacking a diploma. Such workers tend to enjoy less job security even in much stronger economic times, and they are disproportionately concentrated in service-oriented industries like travel, hospitality and retail, which have been particularly hampered by the social distancing measures made necessary by COVID-19.
Education professor Paul Harrington, director of the Center of Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University, said that the trends in joblessness were “closely associated” with levels of educational attainment.
“College graduates were best insulated from the worst effects of these massive job losses,” Harrington said. “Employment fell by a massive 6.65 million over the month among those with a college degree, but relative to those with fewer years of schooling, we see that the pace of college graduate job losses were only about half that of their high school graduate counterparts.”
By contrast, Harrington noted that industries predominantly employing college graduates — such as finance, government, and professional and technical services — were cushioned somewhat from the outbreak’s worst effects. Careers in those fields rely more sparingly on face-to-face interaction and are consequently more conducive to remote work.
The ugly state of the economy raises the question of what will happen to the legions of young people who recently finished high school and college and are about to start looking for work. For many, the pandemic has already cost them summer jobs or internships that would have provided their first taste of working life.
Mountains of economic research suggest that students graduating in the midst of a recession experience will receive lower wages long into their careers. One analysis indicates that the earnings of recent graduates are initially 9 percent lower than they would have been without an economic downturn — a prolonged effect referred to as “scarring,” and one that doesn’t recede for years. Nicole Smith, chief economist of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, called the abrupt contraction “nothing short of devastating.”
“For the graduating class of 2020, entering the job market now is nothing short of disastrous,” Smith said. “Jobs postings have been down by over 30 percent compared to the same month in the previous year. Furthermore, those lucky enough to get a job will invariably experience ‘scarring’ as they play catch-up to earn what they should have in a better economy.”
Just a year ago, the Class of 2019 was heading into a much sunnier economic climate. At the time, analysts from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute noted that low-wage workers had seen increasing wage gains over the previous few years, making additional growth likely as the labor marketed tightened further. Soon-to-be graduates can’t count on the same trends prevailing now; in a blog post Friday, EPI senior economist Elise Gould called the Labor Department’s release “a waking nightmare.”
And with the economic downturn threatening to pinch state and local budgets, financial experts have warned that school districts themselves may have to resort to layoffs in the coming months. Hundreds of thousands of teachers lost their jobs during the Great Recession, and overall spending on education declined in dozens of states.
School Finance Expert Warns District Leaders to Prepare for ‘Major Financial Upheaval’ From Pandemic
It is difficult to tell whether a similar phenomenon is taking shape now. The Labor Department’s statistics show that unemployment in the “education, training, and library occupations” skyrocketed to 14 percent in April from 3.1 percent in March.
In an email, school finance expert Marguerite Roza cautioned against attributing those job losses directly to school districts, which reportedly haven’t yet slashed much spending. But the massive influx of new job seekers might change the outlook for promised teacher salary increases.
“A year ago, teacher turnover was high (and there were shortages), but now, with so many people out of work, the labor market is completely different,” Roza said.
Coronavirus Must-Reads for Schools: More High-Schoolers Eyeing Gap Years, ‘Essential’ Teen Workers, Some Western Schools Already Back in Session & 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.
Two news events that bookended the week underscore the basic cognitive dissonance of the COVID-19 era. On Monday, a think tank released a sprawling blueprint for how schools can reopen. As reported by Education Week, the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute recommended that “policymakers and educators need to think long-term, preparing for possible changes to operations for the next two academic years.” The gist is that schools need to take the next four months to engage in deep soul-searching and careful planning before students return.
And, just like that, on Thursday a small school in rural Montana opened its doors to 56 students and 18 staff members. The Willow Creek School opened after 75 percent of local parents surveyed in the farming and ranching community said they wanted their kids to catch up on schoolwork and return to a semblance of normalcy before summer. The move came after similar limited openings in other western states like Idaho and Wyoming.
Part of the rationale is a strong local-control ethos that is part of the DNA of the American West. “How they open schools and how learning takes place is up to them,” said Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, a Republican elected in 2016. Other states are following the lead of President Trump, who views opening schools as pivotal to jump-starting the dormant economy. At an Oval Office event this week, Trump reiterated: “I would like to see schools open, wherever possible.”
What happens out west could presage larger-scale reopenings this fall, where decisions will reflect a mix of science, tradition and politics. Whether the openings look more like the Willow Creek School or reflect the extensive deliberation envisioned by AEI will likely depend on zip code. Many are fearful of the economy’s steep decline, even as scientists urge caution. One expert told The 74 that given the current inability to stem the virus’s spread, schools that open prematurely risk endangering the lives of students and staff. “Schools are a mixing cauldron for disease,” says Jeffrey Shaman, one of the nation’s leading epidemiologists. “Kids interacting in close proximity is a really good environment for the transmission of respiratory viruses. Opening them early is not the strategy I would recommend.”
Reopening Schools — As COVID-19 Keeps Most Schools Shuttered for the Rest of the Year, a Growing Number in Wyoming and Montana Partially Reopen (Read at The74Million.org)
Teen Workers — High School Student and Essential Worker: Teens Fill Essential Role During Pandemic (Read at the Houston Chronicle)
Gap Year — Biggest Gap Year Ever? Sixteen Percent of High School Seniors Say They’ll Take a Gap Year (Read at The Hechinger Report)
Digital Divide — An Education System, Divided: How Internet Inequity Persisted Through 4 Presidents and Left Schools Unprepared for the Pandemic (Read at The 74Million.org)
Health — A New Coronavirus Threat to Children (Read at The New York Times)
‘Social distance’ learning
Cuomo Taps Gates Foundation to ‘Reimagine’ What Schooling Looks Like in NY (Read at Chalkbeat)
NYC Allows Zoom (Once Again) for Remote Learning (Read at Chalkbeat)
Teachers Without Internet Work in Parking Lots, Empty School Buildings During COVID-19 (Read at Education Week)
Ringing the Bell: These 10 Houston-Area Teachers and Staff Go Beyond the Classroom Amid the Pandemic (Read at the Houston Chronicle)
Principals Find Novel Ways to Honor Seniors During Shutdown (Read at The New York Times)
A Texas Principal Traveled 800 Miles to Visit His School’s 612 Graduating Seniors at Home, All While Socially Distancing (Read at Insider)
Coronavirus Separates Student Teachers From Their K-12 and College Classrooms, Forcing Them to Scramble and States to Change License Rules (Read at The74Million.org)
Coronavirus Leaves Students and Colleges Playing Waiting Game (Read at The Wall Street Journal)
District Hard-Hit by COVID-19 Begins ‘Tough Work’ of Getting On (Read at Education Week)
Despite Pushback, Sidwell and Other D.C.-Area Prep Schools are Keeping Their Small-Business Loans (Read at The Washington Post)
Voluntary or Mandatory? Remote or in Person? Districts Grapple with Summer School Logistics, Equity Questions (Read at Chalkbeat)
Coronavirus Blew Up Summer Internships, Forcing Students and Employers to Get Creative (Read at The Washington Post)
Essays and reflections
A Mom’s View: I Already Knew My Son’s Teacher Is Special. Her Socially Distanced Visits to Our Home Show What an Extraordinary Gem She Is (Read at The74Millon.org)
The Home Is the School: Teaching Philosophy With Kids in the House (Read at Plough)
Why I’m Learning More With Distance Learning Than I Do in School (Read at The New York Times)
The Pandemic Is Causing Widespread Emotional Trauma. Schools Must Be Ready to Help (Read at Education Week)
Student Voice: Facing the ‘Crushing Impact of Isolation,’ Teens Struggling With Mental Health Problems During Pandemic Lean on Each Other (Read at The74Million.org)
“We ride that seesaw every day — is it a good idea? We’re not taking this lightly. We don’t want people to think we’re being irresponsible by making this choice. We’re trying to do what we feel is in the best interest of the students.” —Bonnie Lower, district superintendent in Willow Creek, Montana, where a small school just opened to students and staff. (Read at USA Today)
“Schools are a mixing cauldron for disease. Kids interacting in close proximity is a really good environment for the transmission of respiratory viruses. Opening them early is not the strategy I would recommend.” —Jeffrey Shaman, one of the nation’s leading epidemiologists, who teaches at Columbia University. (Read at The74Million.org)
“We expect to see an increase in gap years and, actually, gap semesters.” —Angel Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College in Connecticut and newly named chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. (Read at The Hechinger Report)
“This is presenting very much like a common childhood illness, which it is not. This is a novel diagnosis that doesn’t exactly have a name, doesn’t exactly have a timeline, doesn’t exactly have a protocol. We didn’t learn about this in medical school.” —Dr. Katie Schafer, a general pediatrician who has a private practice in Birmingham, Michigan, on a new strain of the coronavirus that largely affects children. (Read at The New York Times)
“They need to do whatever it takes to make sure that they can get learning into the homes of these kids. We haven’t been thinking creatively. If the Department of Health can set up tents in Central Park with hospital beds and air systems and drive-up testing sites, and we can’t find ways to promote internet access for our kids to get online for school, then we’ve failed.” —Nicol Turner-Lee, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation. (Read at The 74Million.org)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos released a new rule Wednesday on how K-12 schools and colleges must address campus sexual misconduct, bolstering protections for accused students as the department seeks to combat abuse “without abandoning fairness.”
The regulations, which go into effect in August, make wide-ranging changes to schools’ obligations under Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education. Among them, institutions will be allowed to choose the legal standard that officials should use while investigating complaints. The rule, first proposed in November 2018, generally requires more evidence to determine whether sexual misconduct occurred and limits the situations in which institutions are required to act. The changes also narrow the definition of sexual harassment, requiring schools to intervene only if an incident is “so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” that it denies a student access to an education.
The changes recognize that “we can continue to combat sexual misconduct without abandoning our values,” DeVos said on a call with reporters. Though sexual assault is often seen as primarily a higher education issue, DeVos emphasized the rule’s importance to K-12 students and its role in combating incidents involving school staff. “We are making sure our youngest students — who often get overlooked in discussions of this topic — are no more forgotten.”
Though the rule has stirred a fierce debate among policymakers and advocates for more than a year, the timing of its release — while campuses nationwide are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic — has been criticized by Democrats and women’s rights groups. But DeVos, who called COVID-19 the “invisible viral enemy,” said the time for change is now, while students are away from campuses.
“Civil rights really can’t wait, and students’ cases continue to be decided” despite the campus closures, she said. “We’ve been working on this for more than two years, so it’s not a surprise to institutions that it was coming.”
But Reps. Bobby Scott and Jerrold Nadler, both Democrats, accused the department of pushing through the rule “instead of focusing on helping students, educators and institutions cope” with the pandemic. Meanwhile, the rule “creates new barriers to justice” for survivors while creating a burden of proof that is more stringent than is standard for civil rights laws “and will be particularly difficult to meet given the nature of many sexual misconduct cases.” Scott is chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, and Nadler serves as House Judiciary Committee chairman.
The new rule has been a top priority for DeVos since she took the helm at the department and could become a defining part of her legacy as education secretary. In 2017, DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidance on the issue, which called on schools to better investigate sexual violence reports and required educators to use a “preponderance of the evidence” standard in investigations, rather than a higher “clear and convincing” standard. The news comes less than a week after Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president and the vice president during the Obama administration, denied allegations that he sexually assaulted a former Senate staffer in the early 1990s, saying that the alleged attack “never happened.” More than two dozen women have accused President Donald Trump of sexual misconduct dating back to the 1970s — allegations he denies.
DeVos Rescinds Obama Sex Assault Rules, Allows Schools to Choose Proof Standard Until New One in Place
Under the new rule, schools are allowed to choose between the two evidentiary standards so long as the approach is applied across all cases. It also requires colleges to hold live hearings where students accused of misconduct are allowed to submit, cross-examine and challenge evidence. Such hearings aren’t required at the K-12 level. While women’s rights groups argue that the rule could stifle victims’ willingness to come forward with complaints, DeVos has highlighted a need to protect the due-process rights of those accused of misconduct.
The Obama-era guidance “simply was not working,” DeVos said. “It was a failed approach; we had kangaroo courts and an unreliable process.”
Though the new rule is largely unchanged from draft regulations proposed in late 2018, DeVos said officials made several modifications that reflect public feedback. After the proposed regulations were released, the department received more than 120,000 formal comments.
DeVos vs. DeVos: The Education Department’s Response to Chicago’s Sexual-Misconduct Scandal Contradicts Its Proposed Direction for Title IX, Experts Say
Under the final rule, K-12 school officials are required to respond if any school employee is given notice of sexual harassment. That’s a critical departure from the draft regulations, which sought to narrow the group of school officials responsible for responding to misconduct allegations. Responding to questions from The 74, DeVos said it was important for the department to consider the role age plays in how students report misconduct to school officials. Kenneth Marcus, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, elaborated on the point, noting that younger children “may not know who to go to” with complaints.
“We want to make it clear that if a student or a parent reports a problem of this sort to any elementary or secondary school employee, this will be considered notice to the school as a whole,” Marcus said. “That includes teachers as well as principals. It includes bus drivers and cafeteria workers and guidance counselors.”
Among those who cheered the rule was Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Senate education committee chairman, who said the rule will help schools better understand their responsibilities under the law. They also offer a fair approach for victims and students accused of misconduct, he said in a statement.
“The rule ensures victims get the support they need to change classes or dorms if they allege they have been sexually assaulted or sexually harassed and the rule ensures the victim and the accused get a fair hearing to resolve such allegations,” Alexander said.
Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said in a statement that the rule is a victory for free speech and due-process rights because it offers students a presumption of innocence.
Advocates for sexual misconduct survivors, however, were quick to attack the final regulations.
Arthur Evans, CEO of the American Psychological Association, said in a statement that the rule “lacks the foundation of psychological research and science needed to address acts of sexual misconduct.” Evans took aim at the department for creating an “adversarial system of resolving complaints similar to legal proceedings” and for making school officials responsible only for complaints that occur on their property or during school events such as field trips and academic conferences.
#MeTooK12: One Daughter’s Trauma, and a Family’s Quest to Prevent School-Related Sexual Violence
The nonprofit Stop Sexual Assault in Schools announced a plan to “undertake a court challenge to ensure that K-12 students have fair and effective Title IX guidance.” The group has been critical of the regulations since the draft rule was first released. The new rule could make it more difficult for students to come forward and report allegations to school officials, the group said in a news release. The National Women’s Law Center also threatened a lawsuit, accusing DeVos of being “dead set on making schools more dangerous for everyone — even during a global pandemic.”
But DeVos said the new rule offers a level playing field for everyone.
“I’m a mother and a grandmother, of girls and of boys,” she said. “My insistence as we went through this process was that we develop a rule that meaningfully addresses sexual misconduct and treats all students fairly.”
As Coronavirus Sparks FAFSA Application Drop-Off, Arne Duncan Tells Prospective College Students Not to ‘Derail’ Their Progress
Amid the economic uncertainty brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, fewer high school seniors are applying for federal financial aid, according to figures by the firm Data Insight Partners.
Since campuses nationwide began closing in mid-March, the number of students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has decreased by 2.6 percent compared with the same period last year. That decrease translates to roughly 51,000 fewer students submitting federal financial aid forms and about $105 million in unallocated Pell Grants.
For students, the decrease could come with lasting implications since FAFSA completion rates are correlated with college enrollment. In order to encourage more applications, former education secretary Arne Duncan offered a few words of encouragement to prospective college-goers. Given the widespread uncertainty, it’s “more important than ever” for students to complete their financial aid applications, Duncan, who led the Education Department under then-President Barack Obama, said in a new video.
“For so many families, completing the form is an important step on the path to pursuing their dreams,” Duncan said in the video, part of a competition by the nonprofit Chiefs for Change to encourage FAFSA completion in 20 school districts. The FAFSA deadline for the upcoming school year is June 30. “Across the nation, families are struggling to cope with the pandemic, but we cannot allow this crisis to derail students’ educational progress.”
With K-12 campuses closed and abruptly transitioning to online learning, college advisers have gotten creative in helping students create plans for their futures. While some counselors have called families to remind them of the approaching FAFSA deadline, others have held online sessions to help students complete the application.
Teens in high-poverty districts are less likely to complete the FAFSA than those in more affluent school systems, according to the nonprofit National College Attainment Network. But the effect of the pandemic is already coming into focus, with multiple surveys suggesting that the virus could have major ramifications on college enrollment and affordability. Moody’s Investors Service has reached a similar conclusion. After years of concern over rising college costs and student loan debt, the bond ratings agency forecasts a global drop in college enrollment next academic year.
The Chiefs for Change competition seeks to recognize school district efforts to boost FAFSA completion rates. Among the 20 school systems competing, the San Antonio Independent School District is currently in the lead, with 74 percent of high school seniors having completed the form as of April 24. But at the school district in Midland, Texas, only a third of students have completed the form so far.
Despite ‘COVID Slide’ Concerns, Most Educators Oppose Extending Upcoming School Year to Stave Off Negative Effects, Survey Finds
With school campuses closed nationwide due to the coronavirus pandemic, researchers have warned that students’ time away from the classroom could lead to disruptive learning loss — an anomaly dubbed the “COVID slide.” But most teachers oppose extending the upcoming academic year to confront academic setbacks, according to the results of a new survey.
Sixty-five percent of teachers and 54 percent of school administrators said they want to begin the upcoming academic year with normal schedules, according to results from a recent online survey conducted by the Collaborative for Student Success, a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes school accountability efforts. Meanwhile, just 15 percent of teachers and 28 percent of administrators support the idea of extending the upcoming school year, according to the voluntary online survey, which more than 5,500 teachers, administrators and policymakers completed in mid-April.
Faced with the reality that the abrupt transition to remote learning could set back student learning, policymakers nationwide are considering ways to make up for lost time. For example, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week that the upcoming academic year could begin earlier than normal, with students returning to classrooms by late July or early August. Faced with the prospect of widespread learning loss, he said, people can choose to simply “roll over and just accept” the reality, or they can “do something about it.”
Lawmakers who plan to “do something,” like extending the academic year, must do more to get teachers and school administrators on board, said Jim Cowen, the Collaborative’s executive director. The survey suggests that policymakers are “in for an uphill battle” when highlighting the urgency of learning loss and the need for “more aggressive options.”
One recent study on the “COVID slide,” released last month by the education research nonprofit NWEA, suggests that when students return to school next fall, they’ll likely retain about 70 percent of the current academic year’s reading gains compared with a typical school year. For math, the figure drops below 50 percent.
Researchers’ Urgent Message for Schools: Start Planning Now for a Precipitous ‘COVID Slide’ Next Year
When asked about strategies to combat learning loss, 61 percent of administrators surveyed supported the idea of beginning classes next fall where they left off in April. Though the approach was the most popular among administrators, fewer than half of teachers agreed. Extending the next school year was the least-supported option among teachers. Administrators were least optimistic about giving students the opportunity to repeat a grade, with just 17 percent supporting.
Several factors could be driving educators’ desire for a return to normal next year, Cowen said. For one, they could be resistant to further disruption and uncertainty in their daily routines. They could also be accustomed to learning loss over typical summer vacations, he said.
“It’s almost like they’re saying, ‘Welcome to our world. You’re just noticing this, but we see it every year,’” he said.
But that doesn’t mean educators are resistant to understanding how the virus-induced campus closures affect students academically. Despite an anti-testing backlash in recent years, 59 percent of teachers and 71 percent of administrators said that schools should administer tests in the fall to gauge the campus closures’ effects on student performance. For such tests to be effective, Cowen said, they should be nonpunitive, brief and independent of states’ school accountability measures. As state policymakers consider the approach, Cowen said, it’s important that districts make test results available quickly so educators can determine what’s needed “to help kids get back to where they need to be.”
The Collaborative for Student Success and The 74 receive financial support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
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Arkansas Governor, Common Sense Founder and Coursera CEO Discuss Digital Divide, School Reopening With Axios
As the coronavirus spread across the United States in February and March, many states and districts abruptly shut down schools and scrambled to assemble plans for online learning. The sudden transition exposed existing inequities in the school system, including uneven access to the internet and to high-quality learning materials.
Three education leaders discussed the unfolding crisis and how it is changing education Tuesday during short virtual interviews hosted by the news site Axios.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Common Sense Media founder and CEO Jim Steyer and Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda each talked with Axios cities correspondent Kim Hart during the 30-minute webinar about topics ranging from how to close the digital divide to what the crisis means for the future of online learning and when schools might reopen.
“This happened so quickly — the switch to virtual learning — that teachers had to really quickly figure out a plan and kind of duct-tape things together,” Hart said after the conversations. “Now is the time to kind of take a step back, figure out how do we prepare for the fall, and I think a lot of states are grappling with the fact that they won’t be going back as they were hoping in the fall” while simultaneously trying to combat summer slide.
See the full conversation:
Here are some highlights from the event, which was sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson
Hutchinson, a Republican, said he and his wife have been helping a grandchild learn from home during the crisis and so they understand how time-intensive it is for parents and guardians. He has ordered schools to remain closed through the end of the academic year.
“We had to participate in that online instruction, and let me tell you, it’s not something you just leave the child there alone to work on,” he said. “You’ve got to be there as a parent or a grandparent helping them through that,” especially for younger children who aren’t used to online learning.
Hutchinson, who has been pushing for coding lessons and better computer education in his state’s schools, is also worried about the digital divide, as many Arkansas families still don’t have broadband at home. One solution so far has been to deliver instruction through public television, which reaches families in remote areas, he said. Meanwhile, Hutchinson said his state is working on expanding internet access quickly.
“We’re investing in and accelerating our development of broadband throughout Arkansas so that it will not be that digital divide. It takes some time, but we’re putting state resources into it as well as accessing the federal resources to accelerate that,” he said. Arkansas also plans to use state and federal dollars to create summer learning programs, though it’s unclear whether they will be in-person or online, he said.
The governor said he is “counting on” having schools open in the fall but added that this might change as the situation develops. If the virus resurfaces, he said, he expects that improved testing and contact tracing will allow for a less dramatic shutdown than was needed this spring.
“I think in terms of our schools, we’re going to start, we’re going to have full-blown activities, and then if we have some uprising or resurfacing of the virus, I hope we’re able to deal with that like we do the flu season, where we can close if necessary for a few days [and then] reopen,” he said. “We can deal with the students that might be positive, or [cases] in the community, but we want to be able to continue our education programs in the fall even if we have some resurgence of the virus.”
FCC Chair, Kansas Governor and Khan Academy Founder Wrestle With Federal Role in Closing the Homework Gap During Coronavirus Crisis
Common Sense Media CEO Jim Steyer
Steyer, who founded Common Sense Media, a nonprofit known for rating education and entertainment content based on its suitability for kids, said the current crisis could be a catalyst for finally closing the digital divide — also known as the homework gap — whereby 12 million students don’t have an internet connection at home. More than half of teens are worried about falling behind academically, according to a poll conducted by Common Sense and Survey Monkey in early April.
Common Sense has partnered with dozens of technology and education companies to create WideOpenSchool.org, a website that brings together educational content and activities to help students, teachers and families find free, reliable resources during the school shutdown. Steyer’s next concern is making sure all students can access that content.
While philanthropy can help fund high-quality educational content and advocacy at the state and federal levels for closing the gap, corporations have a role to play as well, he said. Companies that provide internet access and cell service — Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and others — have a chance to not only sign up new customers but make a meaningful difference for kids.
“They have a huge opportunity to step forward with corporate philanthropy in helping out during this epidemic, and in the long run, they’re going to get new customers,” he said. “This is a huge opportunity for philanthropy. It’s also an opportunity for corporations to do their part, step forward, and once and for all help us close the digital divide.”
Putting Rivalries Aside, Media, Education and Tech Giants Come Together to Offer Free Lessons, Activities During Pandemic — All in One Curated Place
Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda
The sudden transition to online learning that occurred for many students and teachers this year was “a tale that was probably a decade in the making,” and online learning was growing increasingly popular “long before COVID,” Maggioncalda said.
Maggioncalda leads Coursera, an education platform founded in 2012 that offers nearly 4,000 online courses that can be used to earn low-cost degrees or taken for free without credit. Because of the coronavirus, Coursera in March announced that it would partner with colleges, universities and high schools to allow their students to take classes for free online while campuses are shuttered. Within five weeks, 400,000 students had enrolled in more than 1.4 million courses, he said.
Coursera is also working with states to create the Workforce Recovery Initiative, which will allow unemployed people to take courses to “re-skill” and prepare for new jobs. At the same time, the company has seen increased interest in courses on teaching and especially in virtual education, Maggioncalda said.
“I think what people are realizing … is there’s been a pretty long period of time here where we have learned collectively, ‘How do you create good online learning?’” he said.
At the higher education level, Maggioncalda said that “there is a tremendous concern” that some high school seniors might decide not to go to college because of the disruption of campus life, or that current college students might take a break because of the pandemic. Coursera could help those students continue learning, he added.
“We are optimistic that having courses available online for students [means] even if they choose not to go to campus, they can continue their study, and they can do it for free or for very low cost,” he said.
Disclosure: Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to The 74.
NAEP Social Studies Scores Show a Downturn in Geography, U.S. History. But Are the Headlines ‘Hyped’?
American education observers have gotten used to receiving bad news from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. They received a little more last month, as eighth-graders posted lower scores in geography, civics and U.S. history in the 2018 NAEP than they did four years prior.
Referred to as “the nation’s report card,” NAEP is the preeminent national exam for K-12 students, releasing semi-regular scores for fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders in a range of academic disciplines. After a prolonged period of growth during the early years of the 21st century, scores in the core academic subjects of math and English have either stagnated or declined in repeated rounds of testing, with low-performing students losing ground the fastest.
A ‘Disturbing’ Assessment: Sagging Reading Scores, Particularly for Eighth-Graders, Headline 2019’s Disappointing NAEP Results
The social studies subjects have been tested less frequently, and their results have attended far less publicity; in general, trends on all three subjects have been modestly positive, with eighth-graders generally making small gains or holding steady through 2014, the last iteration of testing.
That changed when the 2018 numbers were published on April 23. Even with the state of American public schools thrown into chaos by the COVID pandemic, education journalists noted declines of four points in U.S. history and three points in geography (both registering as statistically significant, meaning that they are large enough to not have resulted from sampling bias) and a dip of one point in civics. Several news accounts even revived the perennial favorite headline, noting that U.S. students “don’t know much about history.”
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was no less alarmed, releasing a statement that called the results “stark and inexcusable”:
“A quarter or more of America’s 8th graders are what NAEP defines as ‘below basic’ in U.S. history, civics and geography. In the real world, this means students don’t know what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about, nor can they discuss the significance of the Bill of Rights, or point out basic locations on a map.”
Several subject-matter experts were particularly concerned. In an email, University of Tennessee geography professor Derek Alderman told The 74 that America students’ lack of knowledge of “place, the past and politics” would hamper their success both in the labor market and as citizens.
“The NAEP scores are concerning given that we are in an age in which job readiness and global competitiveness [are] critically connected to humanities and social science education, critical thinking and writing, and thinking about the world as a web of interdependent connections.
If we do not correct this downturn in geography, history and civics, we run the grave risk of our citizens being unable to recognize and challenge today’s growing flows of political misinformation, geographic stereotypes and historical myths.”
But while experts agree on NAEP’s importance as a barometer for general subject learning, not all are convinced that this year’s disappointing results represent a major step back for achievement.
‘An important data point’
Peter Levine is one of the nation’s foremost experts on civics education. A prolific chronicler of public affairs and citizenship at Tufts University, he co-founded the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), an influential clearinghouse of civics-related scholarship. And in recent years, he has issued grave warnings about America’s civic health as faith in government and the democratic system has waned, even among K-12 students.
But in a blog post published in response to the NAEP scores, he advocated that concerned educators keep the results in proportion, noting bluntly that “the headlines are hyped.”
As one of the original designers of the NAEP civics exam, Levine called the change in scores “subtle” and reminded readers that the test sets a bar for proficiency higher than virtually every state exam. Finally, given that the questions are administered in a written exam, scores are invariably tied with eighth-grade literacy in a way that may fail to capture students’ full range of civic engagement.
“The data show evidence of stability in the relatively narrow set of outcomes that the Assessment measures, with the caveat that the test is designed to be stable over time,” he wrote.
Stanford University education professor Sam Wineburg, founder and executive director of the Stanford History Education Group, made an appeal to posterity on social media, noting in a Twitter thread that hysteria over students’ supposed historical ignorance is a tradition with a lengthy history of its own. Indeed, worried media accounts on the subject date back at least to the time of World War I.
Laura Hamilton, a distinguished chair in learning and assessment at the RAND Corporation, agreed with Levine that contrary to some accounts, the declines in scores across the three subjects “are not dramatic.” Still, she said, the fact that a sizable portion of students scored above the “proficient” benchmark — at least 15 percent for all three subjects — demonstrated that the scoring mechanism was “not completely arbitrary” and that the majority of students could also perform at that level if provided with sufficient academic assistance.
[NAEP] “is an important data point that we’re receiving at a time when the need for youth to understand concepts such as their rights and responsibilities as Americans is clear.”
Some fret that the data collected by the exam will soon become narrower and less frequent. Last year, the National Assessment Governing Board — the federal agency that administers NAEP — announced a 10-year plan to cut future costs by testing 2,000 fewer schools and cutting tests in geography, among other subjects. At present, geography isn’t scheduled to be tested again through 2029.
Michael Solem, co-director of the National Center for Research in Geography Education, struck the most dire note. Eighth-graders experienced a three-point drop in geography from the 2014 results, with overall scores ranking as low as they have since 2001. Worse still, in one of the four geographical content areas measured on the exam, Environment and Society, scores had dropped in every round of assessment going back to 1994.
The study of environmental geography, Solem noted, encompasses questions of “how people depend on, adapt to, are affected by and modify the natural environment” — a richly topical field of inquiry, given the present circumstances. The deflating trend suggested that students wouldn’t be able to make critical judgments of current events affecting every school in the country, including the coronavirus outbreak.
“This is a deeply worrisome signal that students are not learning environmental geography topics, concepts and processes at a level of proficiency that is important for understanding the nature of geographical problems from natural hazards and climate change to pandemics such as COVID-19.”