Secretary DeVos has declined to press Congress to waive major provisions of IDEA, the primary federal law governing the education of students with disabilities. This was the right call, and leaves school districts who have been slow to act facing greater challenges and expenses when in-person schooling resumes.
The Education Gadfly Weekly: On IDEA, Betsy DeVos did the right thing. The same can’t be said for all school districts.
The Education Gadfly Weekly: On IDEA, Betsy DeVos did the right thing. The same can’t be said for all school districts.
Over the last month, I’ve been talking with superintendents and special education leaders in many districts, and can distill some of what I’ve learned to reflect on Secretary DeVos’s recent decision not to press Congress to waive major provisions of IDEA.
That decision, let me stress, while not surprising to folks who follow policy and politics, came as a big surprise to many districts—a large majority of them, as best I can tell.
My impression during the COVID-19 shutdowns is that, in their approaches to special education, school districts can be sorted into two camps. The first, smaller camp said, “the law is the law and fortunately it has some inherent flexibility.” They acted quickly and used the latitude afforded by IDEA to rapidly amend IEPs to reflect remote learning realities for their students. They also shifted to remote IEP meetings and are documenting everything they do to have proof in case of future parent pushback. I have seen both suburban and urban schools do this. They will be in good shape in the fall from a compliance perspective, and their students with special needs will have been served as well as could be hoped. That’s not necessarily well served, mind you, but the same goes for all kids. The pandemic has reduced learning for all.
The second camp said to themselves that “a waiver is surely coming, so we don't need to do anything.” They turned out to be wrong. Or they said that “it’s humanly impossible to follow the law, so we’ll deal with the fallout in September.” The first camp, we can now see, has proven the second camp wrong.
Each camp has been serving kids similarly during remote times and providing them with some services, but not as much as anyone wants. The big difference will come in the fall, assuming something akin to normal schooling resumes then. Those that didn’t amend IEPs and continue with IEP meetings have already accumulated a great deal of compensatory services that are due to kids in the fall and also have a backlog of meetings that are now overdue. A key component of IDEA regulations is that services that are in an IEP but not provided must be provided at a later date. Similarly, annual IEP meetings with parents and teachers are required, and if delayed, they must be quickly scheduled.
In both types of districts, students with disabilities need extra help in the fall (as will their nondisabled peers), but what’s different between the two camps is, in one case, the extra services are mandated and in the other they are not. This doesn’t mean that the students with the legally required make-up services are better off, because they are guaranteed the services designed for a different time, the pre-pandemic-schools-are-closed era. They may be better served by an entirely different set of services focusing on months of lost instruction.
This is an example of intended and unintended consequences coming into play. Parents and advocates might say “great, schools should make up the missed services, so the law is working as intended.” Others will observe that doubling up on services in the fall will pull kids from core instruction a lot, overwhelm special ed staff, who are already leaving the field in droves, and will press those who should be providing students with mental health counseling into lots of meetings, meaning that much less counseling will be available.
Ironically, the law already allowed schools to avoid this overwhelmed fall, but most didn’t act accordingly. IEPs are a funny thing. They are legally binding commitments to provide set services, by specific folks, on a fixed schedule for identified amounts of time. In short, they are the law and very specific. That said, if parents agree to change the IEP, they can at any time. Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education made it easier to get these amendments in place during school closures.
In either case, kids with disabilities come up short, as compliance takes the front seat because of legal worries, at the expense of a more impactful focus on teaching and learning, clear eyed strategies for making up for lost instruction, missed learning, and summer slide.
One other comment: As schools first closed down, they initially worried about feeding kids, then about not breaking special ed laws, and finally about remote learning. They didn’t worry as much about teaching kids with disabilities as about the potential litigation. That’s an unintended consequence of IDEA in general, but the crisis has trained a bright light on it.
The Department of Education’s initial guidance made a good faith attempt to put the focus on teaching and learning, urging districts to provide as much instruction as practical. This helped some districts accelerate their remote learning efforts, but it couldn’t shake off the fear of future litigation and noncompliance.
Like most everything in special education, all parties want to help kids, but differences of opinion over what helps abound. It will be interesting to see this fall if compensatory services help as intended or create undesirable consequences for kids, teachers, and families.
Education leaders nationwide are working twenty-four/seven to set up distance-learning opportunities for their students for the rest of the school year. That includes navigating multiple logistical and regulatory hurdles, training millions of educators overnight in how to use online tools, and figuring out how to get digital devices and packets of printed material into children’s hands, among dozens of other pressing tasks.
So it’s understandable if educators are a bit preoccupied at the moment. But it’s not too early to plan for next year, because major decisions loom that could impact students’ trajectories for the rest of their academic careers. Most critical—and sensitive—is whether kids should be “socially promoted” to the next grade come fall. The answer for millions of elementary pupils who were already a year or two behind when the crisis struck should be no.
That is especially true since the 2020–21 school year is likely to be rocky as well. Even if some states and communities are prepared to return to a semblance of normalcy in September, localized outbreaks are likely to shutter schools again for weeks or months at a time.
All of this time away from school is going to be particularly devastating for poor and working-class youngsters, many of whom are already below grade level. Their parents are often working the sorts of jobs that don’t have the option of being done virtually, and their homes are more likely to lack high-speed Internet and ample devices.
Click here to read the rest in the Washington Post, where it was originally published.
I used to leave my phone at the front of the classroom in case of emergencies at home. Of course, I didn’t advertise its place there, but also of course, the students found it and would snag it during community time. They couldn’t access the contents—a teacher knows to keep everything locked down—but they could access the camera, and they would snap whole reels of pictures. At first I stopped them, but as the year went on, our relationships deepened, and I stopped resisting.
Why? Well, one night, my kindergartner son opened my phone and scrolled through, and he found all those pictures. “Who’s this?” he asked. “That’s Lariah,” I said. “Brandon. Dylan. Sofia. Comfort.” And so on. He wanted to know all about them, and so I told him how goofy and smart and kind they are, and we talked about my classroom and my life as a teacher, about middle school and growing up. So the pictures became a bridge to join the twin joys of my classroom and my home. They allowed my son a glimpse of the life of a “grown up” student and made real for him the far-future prospect of teenagerdom. His murky sense of his father’s day clarified, and so it clarified for me, too, my relationship with these students, my identity as a teacher.
In a quiet moment of these distance learning days, I scrolled through the pictures, overcome with new gratitude for their existence, gilded though they are in a peculiar aura now. We’ve been out of the classroom for a month—only a month—and the pictures already seem a transmission from a distant era, a past that won’t be recovered. The ache of having been ripped from a space that I had grown to love pulsed with each pictured flicked past, each captured moment impossibly gone; and yet, paradoxically, they drew me in closer than ever before. The simple humanity of my job rushed back in.
These moments of humanization amidst the turmoil of our current moment can’t be overstated. To be sure, I have much to celebrate as a teacher at Blackstone Valley Prep (BVP). Over this month, I have felt intense pride at my school’s approach to the challenges of distance learning, one shot through with consistent love and meticulous rationality. During a professional development session only days before Rhode Island transitioned from traditional schooling, our CEO outlined plans for that eventuality, and while the planning seemed thoughtful and cohesive, I’m sure I was not the only one with doubts about a meaningful experience for our students.
Such doubts were unfounded. From the top down, BVP’s commitment has been awe-inspiring. We enjoy a bevy of resources, virtual and real. We’ve provided books and technology to those in need. We rolled out a comprehensive digital curriculum with no gap, and we’ve been given the means to supplement core lessons with myriad programs. We’ve received training and support. Due to this scaffolding, we boast incredible engagement from our students, no small feat right now, but that scaffolding speaks half the story.
During a recent Zoom staff meeting, teachers chimed in with their success so far in distance learning. I considered all of the work done by colleagues, by the students, by our families, and I could have mentioned any of it, but a greater truth towered over all of that. I thought of those pictures again. Dylan and Brandon, arms slung over each other’s shoulders. Sofia wagging her finger at me, my eyebrows raised, a slight smile. Marcus, Daniel, and Nataly tossing a ball, chatting, and laughing. I thought of the many ways we had all become human to each other in the few short months we spent together, how simple it was to capture the ease with which we bonded and grew together. I thought at last about my son, about the morning he stumbled into frame during my Zoom office hours and offered a shy hello to faces he’d only seen before in still, and the chorus of hellos he received in return. And so I thought of the surprising vibrancy of my distance learning experience, and I know my experience is one among many similar at our school.
Distance learning requires us to be humans in an inhuman situation. We can’t simply provide lessons and assessments; we have to bridge this digital gap and carry some sense of humor and goodwill and community through the cold wiring. If we’ve succeeded in even a modicum of that task, we owe that to the success in the months prior when we created something special. A school family. A community that could rely on itself, that could flourish even in isolation.
Every day, I receive work from students who manage to learn in the midst of trying environments. Students who don’t have their own room, their own computer, students anxious for themselves and their families. And it’s good, thoughtful work, but it wouldn’t be possible without the other stuff I receive. The phone calls from students who just want to connect. The TikTok videos poking gentle fun at ELA teachers. Groups texts where my students and I hash out which dress a student should buy. That’s the human stuff. That’s stuff education is meant to nurture, and it’s here in full bloom.
We’ll remember these days in coming years, the isolation, the struggle for a new normal. In many ways, of course, these memories will be traumatic. But I think our school has done something special for our community, the foundation for which was laid way back in August when we prepared for all this, unaware we were doing so. We made each other human to each other. We found reasons to laugh and share and love. And as the world fights to balance itself, the most crucial gift of the BVP family is that we, in so many ways, are still as right as we ever were.
Editor’s note: This essay was first published by Project Forever Free.
A crisis—less organic but no less virulent than the coronavirus pandemic—has been raging through the United States for years. Between 1999 and 2016, the rate of drug-related mortality grew 225 percent, due mostly to opioid overdose deaths. And while the most direct negative effects of the opioid crisis, like those of the current pandemic, bypass school-aged children, indirect effects have been widespread and innumerable. Babies exposed to opioids in utero are often born with significant health problems and lingering cognitive impairments; children can lose one or more parents to addiction, jail, or death; families can be deprived of financials resources when all their money goes to drugs; and communities can face overwhelming drains on scarce public resources when fighting the drug scourge.
A new report takes a look at the connection between elementary education outcomes and the opioid crisis.
Authors Rajeev Darolia of the University of Kentucky and John Tyler of Brown University draw upon previous work that models how neighborhood contexts can impact the education outcomes of children. Here their context is the opioid crisis in the community, and the education impact is measured via the interaction between the child’s level of exposure to the pandemic and the child’s vulnerability to any given level of exposure. Darolia and Tyler are quick to note that exposure occurs on a continuum from “the personal and traumatic to the less direct but potentially pervasive,” and that there are mitigating factors at varying levels in each individual child’s life—such as family support or strong schools—working to blunt the negatives. This is an important caveat to have in place when evaluating such research, as we have been warned recently about misuse of a common measure of childhood trauma. Additionally, the researchers consider only one educational outcome: a composite result of state test scores in third-grade math and English language arts. These are individual test score results aggregated at the county level over the study time period, sourced from the Stanford Educational Data Archive.
They first present a scatter plot of the unconditional relationship between test scores and drug-related overdose mortality rates by county. The dashed line is downward sloping and linear, indicating a negative relationship between the two, although there are many outliers in all four quadrants. Next up is a sort of “heat map” of counties across the U.S. where test scores are low and drug-related mortality is high. Mortality figures, broken down by deciles, indicate that counties in the highest (tenth) decile of mortality have third-grade test scores that are about one-tenth of a standard deviation lower than test scores in the lowest mortality rates. While this is a small effect, it is big enough to register when looking at entire counties as individual data points. Darolia and Tyler also point to a notable jump in drug-related mortality from the ninth to the highest decile, which they surmise could indicate a stronger correlation between the most visible outcome of the opioid crisis—death rates—and the lowest test scores observed. They also observe a stronger correlation in opioid exposure and test scores in rural areas than in nonrural. To wit: Rural counties in the highest mortality decile show third-grade test scores almost two-tenths of a standard deviation lower than rural counties in the lowest mortality decile. This is about twice as large as the analogous comparison among nonrural counties. The researchers suggest that this indicates a mitigating factor of available local resources such as community behavioral health services, high-performing schools, or plentiful jobs.
In the end, Darolia and Tyler can only present conditional correlations between the effects of the opioid crisis and elementary education that account for some, but potentially not all, confounding factors. They wisely point out that the nature and level of mitigating supports is an important unknown. There are numerous counties with high levels of drug-related mortality over the period where test scores remain high and vice versa. Are there great community or individual supports buoying children through the worst of the crisis, supports which can be replicated elsewhere? Or perhaps there are areas where “drug-related mortality” is driven by meth or cocaine, still deadly but less all-encompassing in their effects. These outliers are perhaps more important than the obvious opioid hot spots about which we have already learned much.
Education researchers will have much to unpack after life returns to some semblance of normal following the coronavirus pandemic. But this is neither the first nor the last large-scale disruptor of our communities and the school-age children living in them. We must learn as much as possible from each disruption so as to minimize them in the future and to make sure that children’s educational trajectories are obstructed as little as possible despite the vicissitudes—man-made or otherwise—of the world.
SOURCE: Rajeev Darolia and John Tyler, “The opioid crisis and community-level spillovers onto children’s education,” Brookings Institution (April 2020).
In the last few weeks, schools have rightfully been focused on student nutrition, health, and the transition to distance learning. But flying under the radar—and of increasing importance to schools’ ability to serve students well—are teacher policy issues. How has the pandemic affected current and aspiring teachers, and what are states and local districts doing to respond?
The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) has been collecting, analyzing, and comparing teacher policies since 2007, so it should come as no surprise that they’ve been gathering data on how COVID-19 closures are impacting educators. In two recent blog posts, Nicole Gerber and Patricia Saenz-Armstrong share information on teacher work policies, student teaching, and initial licensure in the age of coronavirus. Their findings are summarized here.
First up, teacher contracts. Gerber and NCTQ staff analyzed existing agreements on teacher work expectations, pay, and leave in forty-one large districts across the nation to determine if and how they addressed these issues in the event of emergency school closures. Only six had policies that addressed work expectations for teachers, such as not requiring them to report during emergencies or requesting that they volunteer for additional duties. Eight had policies which affirmed that teachers would continue to be paid, and only one district—Anchorage—had a policy that allowed teachers to work remotely. Only two districts, Broward County (FL) and Wichita, had policies in place to grant additional leave to teachers during local, state, or national emergencies.
The majority of teacher work policies are determined through collective bargaining. Thirty-three districts from the sample collectively bargain, but Orange County (FL) is the only district with a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that requires the district and union to establish new policies in the wake of an emergency closure. Another four districts have CBAs that require districts to consult or negotiate with unions prior to making emergency-related school calendar changes. As of NCTQ’s publication date, seven districts had entered into formal agreements with their teachers’ unions, two were in the process of bargaining, and another five were informally cooperating with their unions to address work policies during the pandemic.
To determine how districts are addressing the day-to-day work of teachers, NCTQ reviewed memorandums of understanding, online communication to teachers, and distance learning transition plans. Thirty-six districts have officially stated that their teachers will be paid during the emergency closures. The vast majority of districts in the sample have set clear work expectations, such as requiring educators to plan lessons and communicate regularly with students. Determining how to grade student work during distance learning appears to be one of the most controversial decisions. As of NCTQ’s publication date, sixteen districts announced that teachers in some grades would still evaluate student work. The exact details of grading policies vary. Minneapolis and Newark, for example, have said that teachers should maintain regular expectations. But Los Angeles, San Diego, and the District of Columbia have opted to implement “no penalty” grading, which means completed work during the shutdown can only be used to increase a student’s grade.
Current teachers aren’t the only ones affected by COVID-19 school closures. Prospective teachers, many of whom were in the process of completing student teaching and earning their initial licensure when schools suddenly closed, are also struggling to adjust. Unlike teacher work policies, which are mostly determined at the district level, licensure decisions are made at the state level.
Saenz-Armstrong identified two broad approaches that states are taking in response to student teaching. The first is to make student teaching experiences more flexible and accept non-traditional instruction, such as distance learning, as clinical experience. This approach is being used in California, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, and New York. The second is to waive length requirements. States like Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, and Vermont are asking student teaching supervisors to assess teacher candidates based on information they already have. Other states, such as Virginia and Ohio, have adopted a modified version of the second approach and are allowing teacher preparation programs to apply for discretion in waiving certain student teaching requirements.
As for the certification exams and performance-based assessments needed to obtain initial licensure, some testing vendors are working on making it possible for candidates to take their exams at home. States, meanwhile, are taking two approaches to licensing. The first is to waive exam requirements and allow candidates to apply for licenses at the discretion of their preparation programs. Mississippi, for example, has suspended licensing criteria for a year and a half and is permitting teacher candidates who have not passed certification exams to apply for a five-year standard license. The second approach is to allow candidates who have completed most of their licensure requirements to obtain a one-year emergency license. This approach is being used in Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, New Mexico, and Washington.
In the coming weeks, districts and states will continue to adopt and implement policies regarding teacher work expectations, pay, and licensure. Interested parties would be wise to keep an eye on NCTQ’s blog for more analysis.
Sources: Nicole Gerber, “How are school districts adapting teacher work policies for emergency closures?” NCTQ (April 2020); and Patricia Saenz-Armstrong, “Student teaching and initial licensure in the times of coronavirus,” NCTQ (April 2020).
On this week’s podcast, Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of advocacy and governance at AASA, the School Superintendents Association, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss the complexities that school systems must consider when reopening schools, especially if social distancing is required. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines which news sources social studies teachers find credible, and how that depends on their own ideological leanings.
Amber's Research Minute
Christopher H. Clark, Mardi Schmeichel, and H. James Garrett. "Social Studies Teacher Perceptions of News Source Credibility." Educational Researcher (March 4, 2020).