History, well taught, equips students with the ability to see through current crises. Civics, well taught, fosters in every heart an investment in democratic processes and a respect bordering on reverence for the rule of law.
History, well taught, equips students with the ability to see through current crises. Civics, well taught, fosters in every heart an investment in democratic processes and a respect bordering on reverence for the rule of law. If we are serious about schools as character-forming institutions and preparing America’s children for just and responsible citizenship, that effort means exposing children to the example of those who have faced crises in the past, and studying their responses and the appeals they made to civic virtue. We raise our expectations of our present leaders—and those who would presume to lead us—by comparing their conduct and character to those who have done so in the past. As we do that, we also raise our expectations for ourselves.
The student of history knows we are not living in unprecedented times. Ours are not the first days that polarized Americans have faced off angrily and uncomprehendingly. Neither are recent events the worst outbreak of political violence even in living memory. As recounted in Bryan Burrough’s riveting history of the period, Days of Rage, the FBI counted more than 1,800 domestic bombings in an eighteen-month period in 1971 and 1972, an average of five per day—a persistent level of radical insurrection that seems unimaginable even after last week’s siege of the Capitol.
For teachers, the natural tendency when events seem overwhelming is to be reassuring. For history teachers, that can—and should—mean seeking examples from the past to shape our response to the present. How have the greatest Americans responded at moments of national discord? The shining example that comes most obviously to mind, worth studying at any time, but particularly now, is Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address.
Standing on the very site of last week’s siege of the Capitol in the waning days of the Civil War, which had claimed an unfathomable 600,000 American lives (a share of the population equal to more than six million Americans today, dead by each other’s hands), President Lincoln delivered a speech that is striking, by twenty-first century standards, for what it was not. He did not indulge in triumphalism over the Union’s military success. He declined even to reassure his listeners of the certainty of victory, though the war was weeks away from its conclusion, instead noting only that he hoped that “the progress of our arms” was “reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.” Most remarkably, Lincoln did not urge vengeance on the South, trials for treason or sedition, nor issue any call for a harsh and punitive reconstruction. The words we best remember today came at the conclusion of the address, when the president, barely a month before his awful rendezvous with an embittered and vengeful assassin, counseled:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Those agitated by our current conflicts might be struck by Lincoln’s observation, which reads today like a warning, that “neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it is already attained.” It may surprise students to learn (and instruct modern audiences, as well) that Lincoln’s speech was respectfully received in 1865, but decades passed before it achieved the exalted status with which it is regarded today, including inscription in full on the interior wall of the Lincoln Memorial, opposite the Gettysburg Address. His insistence that both sides, North and South, were subject to God’s judgement did not sit well with many in his contemporary audience, just as today many of us are disinclined to listen to any suggestion that our own views are anything other than wholly correct and those of our opponents base and vile. Even in the wake of unimaginable suffering and slaughter, a trauma that nearly ripped the nation apart more completely than today’s divisions, Lincoln counseled humility and forgiveness:
Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God. And each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces. But let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.
Lincoln’s speech is the most famous example but not the only one we might ask students to consider as they weigh the present moment against like challenges of the past. Robert F. Kennedy’s somber remarks delivered extemporaneously the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated are equally remarkable for their directness. “For those of you who are Black—considering the evidence there evidently is that there were White people who were responsible—you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge,” he acknowledged. But with the moral authority of a man whose own brother had been felled by an assassin just five years earlier, he counseled prayer for understanding and compassion:
We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past. We will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence. It is not the end of lawlessness. It is not the end of disorder. But the vast majority of White people and the vast majority of Black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.
The fact that Kennedy’s remarks were largely impromptu underscores that his plea was not a calculated, poll-tested political appeal, but an earnest expression of deep conviction and civic values.
Because we owe students the truth, not treacle, we must also teach that even the most elevated expressions or appeals to the better angels of our nature are not enough to smooth over hatred or ward off violence. Reconstruction following Lincoln’s death was accompanied by appalling acts of political violence that seem medieval to the modern mind, and by racial violence that is still not entirely in the past. Kennedy’s speech may have mitigated but did not stop the uprisings that besieged more than a hundred American cities, resulting in dozens of deaths in the week’s following King’s assassination. And Kennedy, like Lincoln, was weeks away from his own death when he delivered his remarks.
Stirring and ennobling words are not enough to avert calamity. But what these speeches and others can do is set a stake in the ground on behalf of a set of common values, which offer a frame through which students can evaluate the words and actions of those who presume to lead us today. Our larger project is to invest children in a set of shared civic ideals, a commitment to democratic processes, and respect for the rule of law. “The notion that norms and institutions are sacred only when they deliver the outcomes we want is a poisonous one,” Rick Hess rightly observed in Education Week. His was not a call for “faux-patriotic happy talk.” Rather, he wrote, “there’s a profound need to teach Americans to appreciate our institutions, the things that they protect against, and what it takes to make them work.”
Appreciation for those institutions, as well as a clear-eyed view of their failures, is a necessary foundation to build if we want our students to commit themselves to improving them, not attacking them. But this is the work of many years. It starts with establishing the cultivation of pro-social dispositions and civic engagement as no less central to the work of schools than college and career readiness, a goal which we are fond of invoking in moments of political turmoil, and equally fond of forgetting when it wanes.
For now, there is an opportunity to build that appreciation with a careful study of times no less divisive and challenging than our own, and the responses to them, then and now. Doing so is not only reassuring, it reinforces the values that have held together a diverse and disparate nation, and if refreshed and renewed, may continue do so.
The Covid-19 pandemic has run roughshod over so much of our education system, closing schools, sending students home to try to learn remotely, and obliterating last year’s summative state tests. One consequence of that cancellation is that, even if students are tested this spring, it will still be impossible to construct typical measures of their learning growth, as most such measures incorporate the previous year’s score. As fanatics for student growth measures—given that they are the fairest and most accurate metrics of schools’ impacts on achievement—those of us at the Fordham Institute wanted to know if some kind of value-added calculations could still be produced despite the testing gap year. Such measures would provide helpful information about which districts, schools, and students have progressed the most and which have experienced the worst Covid-induced learning loss during the pandemic. That would help us identify schools and practices worth emulating, and highlight institutions where students need the most help once the pandemic is behind us.
Fordham’s new report, Bridging the Covid Divide: How States Can Measure Student Achievement Growth in the Absence of 2020 Test Scores, provides the answers. We turned to a team of researchers in the department of economics at the University of Missouri—Ishtiaque Fazlul, Cory Koedel, Eric Parsons, and Cheng Qian—who have many years of experience studying how best to measure achievement growth. The team used administrative data from Missouri to simulate the testing gap year that states face as a result of Covid-19, and to generate ideas about how to work through it. Using data from the 2016–17 through 2018–19 school years, they calculated growth over two years to determine how similar gap-year estimates are to the “business-as-usual” condition where testing data are available every year.
Their results speak to the feasibility of estimating two-year growth measures for districts and for schools, including technical suggestions for handling thorny data issues such as student mobility. The researchers also go on to assess the feasibility of growth measures when two years of test scores are missing, simulating the condition if spring 2021 testing is also cancelled.
There’s good news and bad news:
- Happily, both district- and school-level growth estimates based on a single-year gap convey information that’s very similar to growth estimates based on data with no gap year. Rankings of districts and schools only change slightly when a gap year in testing is simulated, and demographic factors such as race and socioeconomic status are not predictive of such changes. This analysis also suggests that such estimates will be valid for large subgroups such as economically disadvantaged students. We can’t say whether that will be the case for smaller subgroups.
- But there’s bad news, too. Just 27 percent of students attend schools that could generate growth measures if two consecutive years of tests are missing. That’s because most students in the standard testing window, grades three through eight, who were tested in 2019—the last time statewide assessments were implemented—will be in different schools by the spring of 2022. For example, third graders in 2019 will be sixth graders in 2022, which in most districts will make them middle schoolers. If we want to have any school-level measures of student progress in the near future, it’s vitally important that states assess students in 2021. (District growth measures will be doable, and relatively accurate, with another year of missing test data.)
In practical terms, what does this mean?
Calculating student growth measures from 2019 to 2021 is eminently feasible, and the results will be quite accurate—so long as states test students this year. Those measures will provide essential information to guide the educational recovery phase.
But if states cancel testing this year, too, it will be extremely difficult to determine how effective individual schools were during this challenging, historic period in American education. And of course, it will further delay the time until we can restart measuring student progress and holding schools accountable again.
To be sure, we understand the challenge of testing students during a pandemic. Though miraculous vaccines are offering light at the end of a long and dark tunnel, it’s hard to predict exactly how the next few months will unfold. Even if teachers are vaccinated and students are welcomed back for in-person learning (a big “if,” especially in big-city school systems), some families will likely want their children to remain home until they are vaccinated, too. And taking precious days out of the instructional calendar for testing this spring—just when schools can finally start to address students’ social and emotional needs, and significant learning losses—is a hard sell, even for testing-and-accountability hawks like us.
So allow me to make a humble suggestion, albeit one not proposed by the study’s authors: States might shift the spring 2021 assessments to fall 2021 when schools reopen—with luck for all students. This would allow states to compute those all-important student growth measures for the 2019–21 period, plus establish a baseline for student progress during the 2021–22 school year. To be sure, some states will be better equipped to manage this move than others, particularly those that don’t now legislatively mandate testing in the spring and that have enough internal capacity to acclimate schools effectively to new fall assessment schedules. And statistical adjustments will need to be made for summer learning loss.
Still, if states start now, they’ve got nine months to put revised policies in place. With mere weeks to throw together plans when Covid-19 first descended in March 2020, that should feel like a lifetime to state and local education officials today. And for all of the reasons stated above, it’s well worth the effort.
This post is adapted from an email conversation between Marc Tucker and Fordham’s Michael J. Petrilli, in which Marc was responding to Mike’s recent article, “The case for urban charter schools.” It also appeared in Fordham’s Flypaper newsletter.
I am under no illusions about the quality of traditional public schools in the U.S., and I understand the attraction of offering charter schools as an alternative to people who find they must put up with the worst of them if they want any education for their children. But it infuriates me that one of the richest countries in the world would conclude that the chances of having a world class public education system are so slim that the best we can do is a system that will marginally improve some of the worst of our schools. This country has, time and again, found a way to upend the system when it no longer works. Why can’t we do that now? Why is it impossible for us to decide that we want schools for all our kids that are as good as any in the world?
My perspective is situated in a particular analysis of the place of the United States in the global political economy. I see our country as offering a low-quality work force to the world’s employers but charging a very high price for that labor, at a time when rapidly advancing intelligent technologies are about to decimate the market for people with the low level of knowledge and skills the majority of our high school students now graduate with. Further, I see the way our society now works as locking those with relatively poor educations and their children into a world in which there is less and less hope of success. The lower rungs up the social and economic ladders are fast disappearing.
There is a reason that Donald Trump “loves the uneducated.” With luck, we will escape Trump. But it was the colossal failure of our national education system since the 1970s—a system that has produced no improvement whatsoever in the performance of our high school students in half a century, that has created Trump’s base of frustrated, angry, and humiliated working-class people. Their numbers will only grow as the pace of automation grows. That will only make it more likely that a smarter politician than Trump will succeed where Trump has failed. If the ranks of those who do not have the education needed to do the jobs that will not be automated grow, the trashing of our national Capitol building that took place on January 6 will prove to be only a harbinger of things to come. The White supremacists who were in that crowd were riding a very large and growing wave of economic despair.
Half a century ago, the country made a historic decision to provide broad support to the disadvantaged students in our schools, mainly Black and Hispanic students in our big city schools. They still need our help, as much actually as they ever did, because, at the high school level, hardly any progress has been made at all in half a century. But the world has changed.
We were put on notice eighteen years ago, when, in 2013, Oxford University, reported that 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated using equipment that was available at the time. As the cost of automation comes down, more and more of those jobs are being automated. New jobs are being created in their place, but it is very clear that most of those jobs require much more and better education than the people who are losing their jobs have.
The whole process of job automation is being accelerated by Covid-19, as employers replace people—who must be socially-distanced, who can sue their employer for not following CDC guidelines, and who can strike if they feel that they are being endangered or treated unfairly—with machines who think, but do not complain or need to be paid.
The vast majority of charter schools are in our cities, but any education policy that is implicitly based on the assumption that it is mainly our inner-city schools that are in trouble and the rest of our schools are in pretty good shape, is, to my mind, absurd. We live in a country that is painting itself into a corner, a country in which fewer and fewer people will have the knowledge and skills needed to do the kinds of jobs that will be in any sense rewarding or fulfilling. Employers will be able to pay less for the machines and get more for their investment. When masses of people of all colors can’t find decent work, the social fabric will fall apart and we will lose our democracy. Trump was just a shot across the bow.
From my perspective, what is at stake is not just justice and equity for the poor and minority residents of our big cities, important as that is, but the viability of the Republic, and we don’t have much time. I have been looking at the education systems of the countries that have been most successful in educating their students because they have done so much better than we—on average achievement, the achievement of their top performers, and on all the relevant gaps in the performance among their own students. We act in the United States as if it is up to us smart Americans to invent a new and better way to educate our children. Which is exactly what the CDC did when the coronavirus hit. The CDC wasted almost two precious months designing new tests that ultimately did not work when perfectly good tests were available from the Swiss from the start. We get first prize for hubris in all departments.
Our whole education system is incoherent and broken. It was designed for another era and needs to be rebuilt. That sounds impossible, but most of the top performers rebuilt their own systems sometime in the last fifty years. They only did it when they faced what they took to be a crisis. The nature of those crises varied, of course. We think there is a crisis, but it is not in the schools that serve our kids, it is in the public schools in the city. We come up with ideas for creating schools there that we would not dream of sending our own kids to. I regard that as totally irrational. Wrong definition of the problem—wrong solution.
I am not opposed to charter schools. Indeed, I served with pride as a founding member of the board of the BASIS Schools charter in Washington, D.C. But, from where I stand, there is no evidence at all that widespread implementation of charter schools will result in the dramatic changes in student performance in the United States that are now required. For me, charter schools are a policy Band-Aid when a heart transplant is needed.
Through my whole professional career, I have been deeply concerned about the lousy education that most Black and Hispanic kids are getting in our inner cities. But my experience in my home state of Maine, which has lost its forest products industry, shoe industry, textile industry and fin fish industry in my lifetime, has made it clear that the same thing can be said of the rural schools I am surrounded by and a growing number of the kids in our low-income suburbs. What is so deeply depressing to me is that I see our politics pitting poorly educated Whites against poorly educated Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans. The problem isn’t the “others.” It is the poor education that the majority of young Americans are getting that is robbing them of their future and bidding fair to rob all of us of our country.
That is why I see charters as a side show.
Reducing student absenteeism is a key goal in many schools’ efforts to improve academic outcomes. The reasons that students skip are myriad—indifference to school, illness, jobs, caring for siblings, and more—which means that there is no one solution. Carrots such as rewards for showing up and sticks such as reporting children’s absences to their parents have shown varying levels of success and failure in recent studies. A recent working paper from the Annenberg Institute finds significant attendance benefits in a program designed to tackle absenteeism from a different angle—protecting students during their commute.
The Safe Passage Program (SPP) places unarmed adults employed by neighborhood-based, non-profit organizations to keep watch on specific city blocks around designated public schools. SPP monitors serve as a clear physical presence in neon vests and perform basic surveillance and crime reporting on assigned blocks during student arrival and dismissal times, two to three hours in the morning and two to three hours in the afternoon. They are paid $10 per hour and receive annual training on conflict de-escalation, first aid, CPR, and how to monitor and report criminal activity and communicate with school officials. Monitors generally keep in touch with each other and schools via cell phones or two-way radios.
SPP is active in numerous cities around the country, but the Annenberg analysis looks specifically at its presence in Chicago. It only includes elementary schools, which means K–8 schools in Chicago, due to a lack of complete data available for district high schools. Analysts constructed a panel of elementary schools that were open continuously for at least six years between the 2007–08 and 2015–16 school years. There were 391 untreated control schools and eighty-three eventually-treated SPP schools. The program started with fifty-three elementaries in 2013–14 and expanded in each subsequent year until it reached eighty-three in 2016–17.
Analysts use a difference-in-differences approach that leverages this staggered rollout of SPP and includes school and year fixed effects. In short, the variation in timing of the introduction of SPP across schools captures the extent to which SPP affects school outcomes. They have data not only on the SPP program, but on various school-level data, student behavior, and local crime data.
The topline finding is that SPP resulted in an 11 percent reduction in the school level absence rate. If absences were distributed uniformly across students in the school, this would equate to around 1.4 additional attendance days per student per year. In terms of heterogeneous effects, Hispanic students in particular appear to benefit even more from the program. Compared to all students, impacts do not differ for students from low income backgrounds, Black students, and those with disabilities.
Next they look into potential mechanisms to explain these findings—mainly whether the reductions could stem from outside or inside the school walls. In terms of outside, perhaps student perceptions of safety to and from school help to stem absences. So they look at crime rates within a one-quarter mile radius of schools during school days and hours and find that the introduction of SPP did reduce crime rates near treated schools. For instance, violent crimes were reduced by almost 10 percent and property crimes by nearly 15 percent. In terms of inside the school, maybe community monitors could prevent or deter violent incidents from happening. And they do indeed find reduced incidents of serious student misconduct within treated schools that amount to a 27 percent decline. However, it’s possible that reductions in out-of-school suspensions—which they also found—are due to these decreases in serious misconduct and also could have boosted attendance.
Some aspects of these findings make intuitive sense: Students who feel unsafe traveling from home to school would be more likely to skip to avoid becoming a victim of violence. Any increase in safety—real or perceived—could result in better attendance. This is analogous to anecdotes about some children reporting more satisfaction with remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic because it allows them to avoid bullies and other hazards.
Let’s not forget that safety is second on the rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—only after our need for air, water, food, sleep, and shelter—so schools would be wise to address it before they double down on math and English language arts instruction.
SOURCE: Robert Gonzalez and Sarah Komisarow, “Can Community Crime Monitoring Reduce Student Absenteeism?,” retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University (September 2020).
Most young children are surrounded by cell phones, tablets, and computers, both for personal use and, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, for school. Studies show that extensive technology use can have negative effects on children’s development and academic achievement, but little research exists to show which children are most likely to become frequent users of technology.
A new study from Penn State University’s Paul L. Morgan, Yangyang Wang, and Adrienne D. Woods examines what factors in U.S. kindergartens are predictive of frequent online use by the time those students are fifth graders. Students representing a variety of socio-demographics, family compositions, and child characteristics were included in the study.
The researchers surveyed parents, teachers, and the students themselves. Parents reported how often they engaged their kindergarteners in literacy and cognitive activities, including reading, storytelling, playing, and singing, as well as how often they went on family outings. They also reported their family TV rules—what shows their children were allowed to watch, for how long, and at what time of day. Teachers reported on the kindergarteners’ self-regulation skills. They also reported whether students externalized behavior problems (e.g., getting in fights) or internalized them (e.g., feeling sad). And finally, once the students reached fifth grade, they self-reported on the frequency of their online usership of messaging including texting and emailing, online gaming, and social networking.
The results from the surveys, all of which were statistically significant, showed that different characteristics were predictive of different frequencies and forms of online technology use. Children from higher income families spent less time on all three forms of technology. Most children who were exposed to more literacy activities were less likely to use messaging and social networking. Children whose families had stricter family TV rules were less likely to be gamers. Those who exhibited external behavior problems were more likely to use all three forms of technology. Boys were more likely to use online games whereas girls were more likely to use messaging or social networks. And finally, children with disabilities were more likely to use online games.
The researchers acknowledge that results from surveys—especially if they’re surrounding a sensitive subject such as parents admitting their child’s screen time—may not be altogether accurate, saying, “Frequent users often under-report time online relative to data obtained through tracking software.”
Nevertheless, the study’s findings show that differences in individual traits (measured in this case by how children behave and self-regulate), as well as contextual factors such as socioeconomic status and at-home practices, can help predict not only frequency of online technology use, but also what form of online technology children are likely to use. And better understanding these predictors could help schools, teachers, and families think about more “developmentally appropriate screen time routines.”
To wholly withhold children from using online technology isn’t prudent. And for most children nowadays, it isn’t practical, either—between online schooling and homework, FaceTiming family members from quarantine, and the myriad other daily uses for online technology. But appropriate screen time practice doesn’t necessarily mean simply cutting screen time. As the researchers point out, it means being sure to also engage children in other activities necessary for development—reading, playing, socializing, and moving—some of which can be done with the aid of a screen. Understanding what factors can predict extensive technology use may help to identify when extensive technology use is replacing other developmentally important activities, and support families in remedying it.
SOURCE: Paul L. Morgan, Yangyang Wang, & Adrienne D. Woods. Risk and Protective Factors for Frequent Electronic Device Use of Online Technologies. Child Development (2020).
On this week’s podcast, Eric Parsons, associate teaching professor of economics at the University of Missouri and co-author of our new report “Bridging the Covid Divide,” joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss what he and his fellow researchers learned about measuring student achievement growth in the absence of 2020 test scores. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines the effects of a single virtual charter school on student achievement, controlling for student mobility.
Amber's Research Minute
James D. Paul and Patrick J. Wolf, “Moving On Up? A Virtual School, Student Mobility, and Achievement,” retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University (December 21, 2020).
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- Black families have valid reasons to distrust authorities, and that may be one reason they are skeptical about sending their children back to school during the pandemic. —The New Yorker
- With vaccinations a few weeks away for Chicago teachers, administrative leaders and the local union remain in negotiations over the long-term planning for school reopening. —Chicago Sun Times
- Secretary of Education nominee Miguel Cardona encourages low-stakes testing in the spring, arguing that they “provide a crucial tool by shining a spotlight on problems.” —Washington Post
- University of Michigan students offer free virtual tutoring across the Detroit metro area. —MLive
- “Teachers unions are positioning to negotiate how and when schools will reopen. Money, not safety, will decide.” —The 74
- San Antonio, one of the largest school districts, and others in Georgia and North Carolina, make significant investments to dramatically expand hybrid learning options with an eye towards a new future of learning. —Education Week
- A new report from the Clayton Christensen Institute finds that teacher workloads have increased dramatically in the remote world, with almost 50 percent of teachers primarily developing their own curricular materials. —Education Week
- Democrats in Congress may now use the Congressional Review Act to overturn certain regulations with a simple majority vote, raising questions around regulations on faith-based discrimination and sexual assault on college campuses. —Wall Street Journal