If the pandemic vanished tomorrow and all U.S. schools instantly reopened in exactly the same fashion as they were operating last February, how many parents would be satisfied to return their daughters and sons to the same old familiar classrooms, teachers, schedules and curricula? A lot fewer than the same old schools and those who run and teach in them are expecting back!
If the pandemic vanished tomorrow and all U.S. schools instantly reopened in exactly the same fashion as they were operating last February, how many parents would be satisfied to return their daughters and sons to the same old familiar classrooms, teachers, schedules and curricula?
A lot fewer than the same old schools and those who run and teach in them are expecting back!
Of course there’d be plenty of pent-up anger and frustration over the “lost year,” anxiety about kids struggling to catch up, and resentment of educators, administrators, and school boards (and unions!) that couldn’t or wouldn’t get it together for them during the plague. But would all that fade into gratitude for being able to resume the status quo ante? Nope.
Some fading would doubtless happen over the months. But how many millions of families would insist on something different instead of docilely accepting schooling as it operated before the plague hit?
This will not forever be a thought experiment. By September, it’s likely that the overwhelming majority of U.S. schools and school systems will “re-open” in some fashion. But how many families will docilely troop back to the same-old, same-old?
We have mounting reason to believe that plenty won’t just accept a “return to normalcy” even if schools offer it, and will instead insist on educating their children differently.
According to a prominent pollster, less than one-third of U.S. parents even want their children returned to full-time, on-campus instruction in fall 2021 in the same schools they attended in March 2020. His data indicate that 13 percent seek full-time in-person education in different schools, 8 percent favor home schooling, and nearly half prefer either hybrid or wholly on-line instruction.
Some of this stated reluctance to resume the status quo ante is surely health related. Many kids won’t yet have been vaccinated. But consider this, too: As deeply ingrained as is the habit of “going back to school” in familiar ways and places, after you spend enough time doing it differently, you get different ideas about how it should work, greater clarity as to what you’re really looking for, and less willingness to take for granted that it can’t be any different than it used to be.
Mike McShane has a fascinating long essay in the latest National Affairs that describes and lauds what he terms “hybrid home schooling.” (And while you’re on the National Affairs website, please also read Kay Hymowitz’s superb piece on the “cultural contradictions of American education,” derived from her chapter in Mike Petrilli’s and my recent Templeton Press book on How to Educate an American.)
McShane has an expansive view of hybrid home schooling, whereby children “attend formal classes for part of the week and are homeschooled for the remaining days.” This takes many forms and he offers multiple examples, lots of which were functioning well before Covid-19 hit. Most of his examples are private, often religious, but by no means all. For instance, Mountain Phoenix Community School outside Denver is a progressive charter school, organized on the “Waldorf school” model, and offers both in-school and hybrid options. McShane comments that the variety of alternatives available in the hybrid home-schooling space appeals to many kinds of families—liberal and conservative, religious and secular—and to children with all manner of differing needs and interests. What they have in common are parents who are willing and able—often eager—to shoulder at least part of the educational burden for their daughters and sons.
Which is, of course, what millions more who hadn’t set out to do it have been doing—whether eager or just stuck—during the past year. Even as many will be relieved to get out from under that responsibility, think how many more may want to persist with some form of it.
The Wall Street Journal also reports an upsurge of interest in home schooling: not just parents hybridizing with their children’s regular school to manage remote instruction, but actual home schooling in which parents take on responsibility for imparting the requisite skills and knowledge to their children. Says one mom of her kids’ previous school during the pandemic-induced shut-down: “They were having to build the ship as we go. But after they built the ship? It still wasn’t floating.” Because her seven- and twelve-year-olds were “increasingly frustrated and bored,” over the holidays “she and her husband decided to rejigger their work schedules, pick a curriculum and start home schooling….” The reporter recognizes that “It isn’t clear how long new home-schooling families will stick with it” once traditional schools get back into full swing. But some surely will, whether full time or in hybrid fashion, the more so if a lot of parents find that they can continue working from home, at least some of the time.”
This is not a new insight. Back in May, Mike Petrilli was pointing to the emergence—and merits—of “half-time high schools.” Back in August, Bruno Manno (among others) was helpfully cataloging the many new forms of schooling—and school choice—that were emerging in response to Covid-19 (and sometimes long before that), driven by the inability of traditional schools to give millions of families what they want and need, by the creativity of parents (and education entrepreneurs), and by the proliferation of flexible forms of instructional organization, governance and financing that have emerged in state after state.
A century ago, as American GIs returned from the Great War, a popular song asked “How ya’ gonna keep ‘em down on the farm (after they’ve seen Paree)?” Which is to say, what’s going to bring people back to the old familiar school once they’ve seen and experienced something better?
We cannot yet know how many U.S. families will demand something different, but it won’t be a small number. Educational innovation and change may be in for their biggest boost in memory. Not everything different will work better—we’ve seen that in the variegated performance of charter schools, for example—but some will.
I know it won’t be equitable—as was sadly true of “same old” schooling and has been exacerbated in many ways by the Covid-19 experience. Low-income and single-parent families won’t have as many options or opportunities. There will be supply problems even for upper-middle-class families located in districts and states, where—by law, by regulation, or by economics—the only options on offer are “same old” public schools, pricey private schools and full-time home schooling.
Yet some enterprising families will find ways to overcome those obstacles. Maybe a lot will. Some laws will change. Some hybrids will emerge that have never previously been sighted in those communities or accessible to those families. Certainly the opportunity is immense—and the appetite appears keen.
If a lot fewer families settle for the “industrial-style” school model that previously enveloped them, I say bravo. I also note that this moment was created in large part by the failure of most industrial-style schools to provide what their clients needed and wanted during a period of enormous stress. To channel the late Clayton Christenson, the situation is ripe for disruptive innovation. Much as Paris was enticing to American farm boys in 1919, new forms of schooling are appealing to Covid-weary American parents today.
The father testifying before Virginia’s Loudon County school board starts out calmly enough. “You should all be fired from your day jobs because if your employers knew that you’re more inefficient than the DMV, you would be replaced in a heartbeat,” he says, growing more animated, more pointed. Citing data on the minimal risk associated with in-person learning he tells them, “You’re a bunch of cowards hiding behind our children as an excuse to keep our schools closed.”
His anger rises. He’s yelling that garbagemen face greater risks than anyone in the school system. Now he is shrieking at the school board members, a face mask insufficient to cover his frustration. “Figure it out! Or get off the podium! Because you know what? There are people like me and a line of other people out there who will gladly take your seat and figure it out!”
The video has gone viral, but it’s not the man’s angry rant that stuns and lingers. It’s the response. There isn’t one. The board members don’t seem taken aback by the rage-filled, finger-pointing, verbal assault. They sit impassively. After a moment and sounding bored, the school board chair says only that she will give district staff “an opportunity to make sure the podium and microphone have been cleaned.” This further enrages the dad. Off mic, you can hear him promising, perhaps threatening, “I’ll be back next time! And the next time! Until you open the freaking schools!”
Younger readers may not know (and older readers may have forgotten) that the high-water mark of the education reform movement in the first years of this century coincided with frustration over teachers union intransigence, and decades of complacency about the poor performance of American education. The breaking point was slow in coming, but when it came, it drove a wide public consensus in favor of a striking array of reform initiatives, including charter schools, testing and accountability, and various efforts to evaluate teacher quality. The breadth of that consensus gave reform its high-water mark of bipartisan support and moral authority. At the apex of its power and prestige, reformers successfully turned public opinion against “The Blob,” the money-sucking agglomeration of associations and agencies that reliably placed their own interests ahead of children and families. In the decade since, the ed reform movement overspent its political capital and wore out its welcome, disrupting schooling in ways that proved unpopular, without the transformative results to justify the upheaval.
Don’t look now, but The Blob is back, more self-serving than ever, and creating fertile conditions and new alliances that could galvanize a fresh appetite for school choice. Parent frustration is growing. And the intransigence of teachers unions and districts to resume in-person learning is reaching epic levels—and epic levels of obtuseness.
Teachers unions in Los Angeles and elsewhere have been shamelessly opportunistic, insisting the pandemic requires Medicare for All, wealth taxes, moratoriums on charter schools, an end to voucher programs, and more—unblushing and bad faith demands for programs and policies that have nothing to do with safe reopening of schools.
Chicago teachers are refusing to return to in-person classes and threatening to strike. One wrote an op-ed complaining that parents who wish to re-open school buildings are “disproportionately white.” It was titled, “Are We Going to Let ‘Nice White Parents’ Kill Black and Brown Families?”
A group of Chicago dance teachers thought the best way to illustrated their safety concerns was by filming interpretive dance video titled, “The Moment We’re Safe.” The cringe-inducing display was Tweeted approvingly by the Chicago Teachers Union and mercilessly mocked. “It’s not like we’re asking teachers to storm the beaches at Normandy,” said one of thousands of angry commenters.
The president of the Pasco County (Washington) teachers union claimed the push to reopen schools for in-person learning is an example of “white supremacy,” and concerns for children who are suicidal without school or sports are “ignorant and another expression of white privilege.”
In a Washington Post op-ed, the parent of three children in the Fairfax County (Virginia) schools complained that there is “no common-sense explanation” for vaccinating teachers if they refuse to return to in-person learning. Worse, those teachers are now demanding that all children be vaccinated, even though no vaccination has been approved for anyone under fourteen. “The excuses pile up faster than the half-inch of snow that typically shuts down school operations,” he wrote.
As Corey D’Angelis of the Reason Foundation quipped, all of this is “a free advertisement for school choice during School Choice Week.” Indeed, an Education Next survey finds 60 percent of private school students are receiving instruction in person; just 18 percent remotely. By contrast, more than half of students enrolled in district and public charter schools are receiving instruction fully remotely, with fewer than one in four attending school exclusively in person.
“A lot of parents, and a lot of liberal parents have had it,” noted Christine Rosen on the Commentary magazine podcast, discussing a CNN interview by Biden Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who defended teachers unions that refuse to resume in-person teaching despite studies that have shown a low risk of spreading the coronavirus. “It has people angry. And it’s an interesting coalition of people who are angry.”
In sum, The Blob is giving back every inch of the ground they gained in the past decade and then some, with their refusal to return to work. Parents are still strongly inclined to love and trust their children’s teachers, and maybe even their teachers unions. But the relationship is being tested and estrangement is inevitable where it doesn’t include in-person classes. Places like Loudon and Fairfax Counties are majority white and affluent, the most reliably stalwart in their support of public schools. When you lose those parents, the game has changed.
There’s a danger that reformers will misread the moment, too. Recall former ed secretary Arne Duncan’s cocky and antagonistic remark blaming opposition to Common Core on “white, suburban moms” who all of a sudden discover their kids aren’t as “brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” Those are the same parents who are now upset with the failures of their public schools to get their act together. About the last thing I’d do is push for an immediate return to aggressive testing, lest frustrated parents who simply want their kids back in school—any school—be reminded why they soured on reform in the first place.
Bills to allow educational funding to follow the child have already been introduced in nearly two dozen states. Research conducted recently for one high-profile reform group showed nearly three-fourths of parents would change schools given the financial opportunity to do so. The backlash is here, and it’s fearsome. The conditions are ripe for a new and politically diverse and robust school choice coalition, bringing into the school choice camp parents who likely never dreamed they’d be anything but supportive of their local public school.
The late Joseph Overton of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy developed the concept of the “Overton Window” to describe the range of policies politically acceptable to the general public at a given time. Thanks to union intransigence and The Blob’s lack of responsiveness, that window is shifting in favor of school choice.
Don’t blow it, reformers.
Editor’s note: This was first published by Forbes.
Last month, I weighed in on the renewed calls for civics education after January 6’s disgraceful assault on the U.S. Capitol. While teaching civics would be a good start, schools are critical institutions of civil society regardless of whether they teach civics well or at all. They are inherently stabilizing institutions, which is especially important given the polarization trends in the United States, as noted by authors Maggie Koerth and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux in an insightful new analysis for FiveThirtyEight. The authors delve into how and why we got to the riot at the Capitol, what the dividing lines are, and whether there’s any hope for healing and reconciliation in the Biden era.
They’re not optimistic. “Everything is partisan now,” they write. “And all-or-nothingism has, accordingly, become the way politics is practiced.... That’s not just the result of increasing polarization—there’s a twisted mess of forces at work.” Sound familiar? That’s because education has been wrestling with its own Gordian knot of worrisome trends during the pandemic, shaped more by politics than evidence, due to the loss of social stability and cohesion offered by schools when they’re open.
As with the forces pulling Americans apart, the devastating consequences of keeping school doors shuttered is nowhere more evident now than in how teachers unions have dragged their feet to stay remote, putting the White House at odds with the CDC and in a tough political position, challenged to choose between the unions and a growing number of angry and frustrated families. “It’s fear-based,” laments one parent of the current state of play. “Like if it was science-based, fact-based, data-based, we could put out a metric or we could look at the data and decide when we get there and when it’s safe. But it has become an emotional conversation. It’s become a political conversation. And I don’t know where and how you end those.”
Those conversations become even more despairing when teachers jump ahead of the line to get vaccinated even as they refuse to return to classrooms. We’ve seen that in Fairfax County, Virginia, the same school district that was running empty school buses last fall to justify keeping their bus drivers on the payroll. Is it any wonder that parents there are at wit’s end? Or consider San Francisco, which has also been a flashpoint for this power struggle between parents and establishment interests.
To be fair, reopening schools doesn’t mean people won’t disagree, even heatedly, about what kids learn, the values schools impart, or for whom schools are named after. Merely that, when we invest in a shared civic space because our children are inside it, a virtuous incentive structure is in place to compromise, be more reasonable, and perhaps even less irritable.
Indeed, Koerth and Thomson-DeVeaux observe that a “meaningful minority” of Americans are angry, cynical, and suspicious, and the “partisan death spiral” the nation is in tends to reinforce itself. The result is a gradual erosion of trust that “makes compromise and de-escalation even less likely.” But thankfully, it’s not all gloom and doom:
Political science does offer some clues to what might calm the nation. The most powerful forces shaping our opinions are our friends, neighbors and the public elites we see as “one of us.” This means affective polarization also has power over the facts we believe and what, if anything, can be done to heal rifts between one side and the other. The transition to a new president seems like an opportune moment to change the zeitgeist, to get us “back to normal.”
It’s the same prescription recently offered by veteran Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews, who shares a faith in the assuaging power of relationships:
Have you ever thought carefully about why you voted the way you did in the last election? How big a factor was your education?
How we were raised, where we grew up, where we live, where we work and, perhaps most influential, our closest friends’ views on politics are more important, I think, in making such decisions. We prefer to share the views of those we love. My wife and I have been together for 55 years so far. Somewhere in the middle of that time, we voted differently. The arguments weren’t much fun.
The human connections described by Koerth, Thomson-DeVeaux, and Mathews—and their unifying effects—have been severely and adversely impacted since schools shifted to a remote model. If the nation goes into another fall with schools still shut—as some districts have outrageously started to signal—the fury and cynicism across the country will ratchet up another notch, putting any semblance of normalcy that much farther out of reach.
If we’re to have a shot at leaving the acrimony and divisiveness behind, our nation needs the anti-polarizing effect of open schools. Once that’s had, there are some things within schools’ control. Local communities can begin by teaching their students how to find common ground with those they might disagree with, to foster genuine bonds of affection for one another, and to celebrate diversity in all its forms. As former President George W. Bush once said, “We have never been held together by blood or background. We are bound by things of the spirit, by shared commitments to common ideals. At our best, we practice empathy, imagining ourselves in the lives and circumstances of others. This is the bridge across our nation’s deepest divisions.”
Predicting the effects of pandemic-related disruption on students’ education is a vital but fraught pursuit. A recent working paper from the Annenberg Institute attempts to extrapolate the potential effects of Covid-era student absenteeism—a problem which went from bad last spring to possibly worse in the fall—on students’ academic and social-emotional development using data from pre-Covid times. The results are sobering.
Researchers from the University of California use administrative data from six large districts in the Golden State to estimate the impact of absenteeism on both academic and social-emotional learning (SEL) outcomes. Data cover the school years from 2014–2018 for students in grades three through twelve. Academic outcomes were measured via Smarter Balanced test scores in math and English language arts,in which the tested grades are three through eight, plus grade eleven. Social-emotional data came from self-reported student surveys given in grades four through twelve, measuring four SEL constructs: self-management, growth mindset, self-efficacy, and social awareness. Additionally, the researchers collected attendance data—including suspensions and expulsions—and demographic information on the nearly 600,000 students in the sample.
They used a student fixed effects model to control for as many unobserved factors impacting outcomes as possible and found that, on average, students were absent from school 7.4 days in a regular school year—a little less in middle school, and a bit more for high schoolers. Absenteeism rates also varied by subgroup, with Black students, students with disabilities, English language learners, and homeless students absent more often on average than their peers.
Unsurprisingly, their findings concurred with prior research showing that increased absenteeism has clear negative effects on students’ test scores, although the nuances and variations around these effects are interesting. For example, absenteeism affected students’ math performance more than it did English language arts (ELA) performance. Being away from school for ten days resulted in a 5 percent of a standard deviation loss in ELA compared to an 8 percent of a standard deviation loss in mathematics. Negative academic effects were also larger in middle school than in elementary grades, and were more pronounced for certain subgroups of students—those who qualify for subsidized meals, those with disabilities, and homeless students, although not for English language learners.
This research covered some new ground in terms of the effects of absenteeism on social-emotional learning. The study suggests being absent from school harms students’ SEL skills in much the same way it does academic skills, across all four constructs measured. Interestingly, middle schoolers’ SEL outcomes were more negatively affected than among students in elementary and high school. Absences were detrimental for all subgroups, however, although to varying degrees.
The study sample was not nationally representative, and the SEL data came from self-reported surveys, yet the negative relationship between absenteeism and student outcomes seems reasonably clear as well as unsurprising. What’s worse, these deleterious effects were observed during “normal” school years. As EdWeek recently reported, absences have doubled during the pandemic for students across the board, whether in fully-remote, in-person, or hybrid learning environments. Also concerning is that mounting absenteeism likely disproportionately comprises at-risk students.
Given the devastating toll the pandemic has taken on families, students, and schools across the nation, figuring out how to reach these lost students and make up for lost time will be critical in the months and years ahead. This study is one more grim piece of evidence about how much may be at stake.
SOURCE: Lucrecia Satibanez and Cassandra Guarino, “The Effects of Absenteeism on Cognitive and Social-Emotional Outcomes: Lessons for COVID-19,” retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University (October 2020).
Thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, annual testing in math and reading for students in grades three through eight became mandatory in every state beginning in 2005. Fifteen years later, a wealth of testing data has enabled researchers to build and analyze longitudinal models of student achievement, such as the one forming the basis of a recent CALDER working paper from Dan Goldhaber, Malcolm Wolff, and Timothy Daly.
They employ datasets from Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Washington, all of which have historical test score data, along with information on student characteristics and three specific long-term outcomes. While most other predictive studies stopped at eighth grade, Goldhaber and colleagues were able to track sixteen cohorts of students from third grade through high school, enabling them to investigate how accurately early measures of student achievement predict later outcomes, namely high school test scores, advanced course-taking, and graduation.
Researchers controlled for student characteristics such as race, gender, disability status, English language learner status, free and reduced-price lunch eligibility, and enrollment status in special education. Instead of simply using cut scores or hard test scores, they produced estimates by creating more flexible specifications, such as the decile of test score achievement in the third grade, and they examined the interactions of these deciles with different student characteristics. Importantly, students in the three states exhibited similar patterns of achievement on the initial third grade tests.
The topline finding was a strong correlation between a student’s place in the third-grade test distribution and that youngster’s performance on high school math tests. Moreover, there were consistent and strong relationships between third grade math test scores and each of the high school outcomes of interest. For example, the poorest performing students (those who scored in the lowest decile on the third grade math test) scored 48–54 percentile points lower in the high school math test distribution, were 45–50 percent less likely to take an advanced course, and 11–21 percent less likely to graduate. Soberingly, these relationships held even when researchers omitted eighth grade test performance, suggesting that third grade performance sets the tone for a student’s entire school career. Still, adding eighth grade scores into the model increased the predictive power while not changing the predictions themselves.
Race and poverty were strongly predictive of a student’s academic trajectory. Though this might not be news, the amount of academic inertia that this paper reports between third grade and high school is particularly worrisome. Even students who performed in the top percentiles on third grade tests were less likely to maintain that performance level as time went on if they met certain criteria. Notably, free-lunch-eligible students who performed at the top decile on the third grade math test were only about as likely to graduate from high school as non-eligible students scoring in the second decile. In short, socioeconomically-disadvantaged students who show academic prowess early on are not guaranteed to continue on that trajectory, as might be the case with their more affluent peers. And other research corroborates these concerning findings.
Looking to determine whether these predictive results held across states, the research team found that using student achievement data and parameters from one state as the basis for predicting students’ educational outcomes in another state did not substantially reduce forecast accuracy. This increased their confidence in the predictive power of their modeling.
Testing students annually and using these results to inform policy decisions (like school accountability, for example) has been a major federal strategy for two decades. Such test results are often also used as diagnostic tools for educators and parents to identify individual student needs, and can serve as a sort of “warning system” to identify pupils who need academic support. Yet this study suggests that neither of these goals is best served by the testing frameworks currently in place. Most testing occurs at the middle and high school level. If it’s true that third grade test scores are strongly predictive of vital high school outcomes, both middle school testing and any intervention that arise from it are seemingly far too late to help students and schools who need it the most.
Still, this report reinforces the truth that test scores offer vital information about students’ academic achievement now and in the future (a fact that will play no small part in the looming decision to keep or cancel 2021 standardized tests). Whether or not these warning signs will be recognized in light of a dangerous antipathy toward testing—and whether intervention will begin early enough to overcome their predictive power—are open questions. While test naysayers push forward, the research indicates that vulnerable students’ academic progress will stall.
SOURCE: Dan Goldhaber, Malcolm Wolff, & Timothy Daly, “Assessing the Accuracy of Elementary School Test Scores as Predictors of Students’ High School Outcomes,” CALDER Working Paper No. 235-0520 (May 2020).
On this week’s podcast, Vic Klatt, a principal of Penn Hill Group, joins David Griffith and Checker Finn to discuss what the latest proposed federal stimulus package would mean for America’s schools. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines how school district consolidation affects student achievement.
Amber's Research Minute
Josh B. McGee, Jonathan N. Mills, & Jessica S. Goldstein, “The Effect of School District Consolidation on Student Achievement: Evidence from Arkansas,” retrieved from Annenburg Institute at Brown University (January 2021).
If you listen on Apple Podcasts, please leave us a rating and review - we'd love to hear what you think! The Education Gadfly Show is available on all major podcast platforms.
- “Cardona: Testing is important, but ‘I don’t think we need to be bringing students in just to test them.’” —Chalkbeat
- Though teacher unions want to deny the facts, children can return safely to classrooms—and for the sake of the most vulnerable. —David Brooks
- “Schools must resist destructive anti-racist demands.” —John McWhorter
- The Biden administration’s education spending proposals want to experiment with carrots and sticks to get schools to reopen in person, as many states and districts have done. —WSJ
- When public schools failed to reopen, families in some of the largest urban districts switched to Catholic schools that prioritized in-person learning. Will Biden take notice and support school choice? —WSJ
- This point and counterpoint make the case for and against whether students should take statewide assessments this year. —Education Next
- These five principles explain how we should think about testing and its usefulness during the pandemic and in the future. —Frederick M. Hess and Michael J. Petrilli
- At the Cleveland Breakthrough charter school network, they’re dedicating their yearly fundraising event to bonuses for the teachers and front-line staff that worked tirelessly through the pandemic. —WKYC
- “A partnership between the Rhode Island Department of Education and [online learning site] Schoolhouse.world will pair students with tutors around the globe.” —Providence Journal