Before the ink was dry on the CARES Act, talk had already begun about the next stimulus package. The need for this is obvious. There are over 50 million kids not attending traditional K–12 schools today, many of them poor, homeless, not speaking English, or requiring special services. Should such a measure come to pass, it ought to, among other things, help school systems provide remote learning at scale and expand economic on-ramps for youth and adults.
As a veteran education advocate who prides himself on paying attention, I missed the boat on trying to inform the federal government’s $2 trillion CARES Act, the third and largest stimulus bill so far. I shouldn’t have.
The COVID-19 crisis had loomed since January, but by the time I got on the phone with a staffer from Delaware’s U.S. delegation, the bones of the package were already being debated in the Senate. By the time I zoomed out to some of my friends nationally and kicked some ideas around with my team, the debate was nearly over.
So, housebound though we may be, let’s shake off our COVID malaise and get busy.
The need is obvious. Currently, more than half of the nation’s 50 million kids are not attending traditional K–12 schools, many of them poor, homeless, not speaking English, and/or requiring special services. As the virus spreads, there’s a good chance the entire public school system will go remote. Come autumn, without intervention, many will have gone the better part of six months with little to no structured academic support. (See CRPE’s survey of districts moving to online.) Our already-wide achievement gaps will expand. (See Rotherham’s argument for why our schools should stay open this summer.)
Beyond K–12, there’s a high likelihood another 40 million young people will either not be in our early childhood centers (around 20 million) or not be in our colleges and universities (another approximately 20 million), and they are equally vulnerable. While, collectively, this group—ranging from babies to young adults—represents about 90 million people, or more than a quarter of our entire population, they received only about 1 percent of the resources in CARES.
CARES is understandably focused on helping the unemployed and their employers, as well as addressing pressing healthcare needs. The final package dedicated about $30.75 billion to education out of $2.2 trillion. A significant sum, yes, but far less than the nearly $77 billion in the 2009 ARRA stimulus. (For additional detail, see here.)
As in 2009, “State Fiscal Stabilization Funds” will be critical in filling gaping holes in education budgets that will be crushed going into 2020–21. (See this webinar by Margurite Roza, Director of the Edunomics Lab and a Research Associate Professor at Georgetown University.) This is a much-needed effort to keep the current system afloat. (See the recommendations of Rodel, of which I’m president and CEO, on CARES.)
Yet we can do far more with the next round of stimulus, which could come as early as May. While some of that round will surely be needed to fill budgetary holes, it’s also an opportunity to think bigger. This, coupled with presidential campaigns framing their transition plans over the summer, is an opportunity for the education community to engage our local, state, and national partners to advance bold strategies that could help address some of the inequalities baked into our current system.
Here are three ideas that would improve Phase 4, some of which are included in CARES or could be supported by CARES funds if pushed further.
Prepare for remote learning at scale. Our schools were caught flat-footed by COVID-19, especially in districts with large numbers of historically underserved students. (See CRPE’s helpful report). Given how many kids will be woefully behind by September, isn’t this a great time to migrate to competency-based, technology-enabled, personalized learning systems? We don’t even know when children will be going back to school, and this might not be the last viral epidemic. While our schools have experimented with online and remote learning for more than a decade (and there are exemplars, on which CRPE, New Schools and Next Gen Learning have more), we are far from accomplishing this well at scale. Wi-Fi deserts still exist, and many kids lack workable devices. Delaware’s public and private sector leaders, as in many other states, have envisioned a world in which every child has a digital portfolio that highlights their work and mastery, as well as access to broadband and online learning platforms. (See Student Success 2025). This, however, also requires a massive investment to ensure that our teachers can work with these tools and systems to deliver inspired instruction. Now might be our moment to make this a reality.
Expand economic on-ramps for youth and adults. Astronomical unemployment numbers await. How can we ramp up what many governors are already doing to advance CTE and open career pathways for all kids so that, besides giving the next generation a leg up, we also assist newly unemployed adults to get back on their feet? “Career pathways,” like the ones in Delaware, are being built across the U.S. and consist of new partnerships among high schools, higher education, and business. These pathways encompass the full range of careers, and they enable young people to acquire meaningful work experiences, as well as college credit and certifications that they can take anywhere in the country and make a good starting wage. Existing federal funding streams like Perkins and WIOA support this work. Why not expand those investments and embed them in an audacious plan to rebuild our infrastructure and support emerging industries? (See more on how this could impact IT from Zoe Baird.)
Strengthen pre-K and early learning. The research is clear: Most brain development occurs before age five. (See here for more on brain science.) But throughout the U.S., Delaware included, early childhood providers make barely more than minimum wage and education quality varies widely, with low-income students and students of color much less likely to be in high-quality settings.
As we struggle to get the nation back to school and work, parents will need a strong early childhood support system. How about we envision high-quality, full-day pre-K for all three- and four-year-olds; greater subsidies and quality improvement dollars in early learning centers; and a childcare workforce that makes a living wage, so they can come off public assistance and have a career path?
That needn’t be the end of it. We should also—for example—work to create a much better prepared and more diverse teaching force and design data systems that link across education, health, housing, and labor outcomes. The immediate point is to get the ideas on the table fast, initiate the debates, and flesh out the ones that stick. The goal ought to be that, by May, House and Senate leaders have in hand thoughtful, concise briefs informed by an equity lens and backed up by legislative language, sound budget projections, broad coalitions, and solid data.
This will be a long haul. There could very well be Phases 5, 6, and 7. In the next couple of months, however, I hope we can get ready for Phase 4. As the country gets back on its feet, we needn’t simply rebuild what was. We can, and should, reimagine what could be. This is our way to play a role. Our children and our nation need us to do more than shelter in place.
Paul Herdman is president and CEO of Rodel, a nonprofit organization that partners with Delawareans and educational innovators from around the world to transform public education in the First State.
The debate on how schools will provide special education in the near term has generated its fair share of extreme arguments. From coast to coast, districts have claimed that their inability to remotely provide accommodations for students with disabilities risks their federal funding and exposes them to potential legal action from parents and disability rights advocates. For their part, some activists sounded equally ridiculous in insisting the reins be pulled in on distance learning so they too could virtue signal their concerns about equity. The shorthand being if we can’t educate one child, then no child can be educated.
The ensuing hubbub led to a spirited round of finger pointing. Like many, I was initially pleased when the U.S. Department of Education stepped in to help quell the fray. As my colleague Mike Petrilli recently wrote, “[Betsy DeVos] and her team acted swiftly to clarify that federal civil rights and special education laws need not stand in the way of distance learning while schools are closed.” Chalk one up for the good guys, right? After thinking about it some more, I’m having second thoughts. While federal disability laws can certainly be an obstacle, the far bigger barrier in all of this is the erosion of trust between school districts and parents of special education students.
For decades, public officials and special education advocates have been at loggerheads over the quality of education provided to students with disabilities. These disputes are often bitter and complicated, come with exorbitant litigation costs, and have clumsily typecast advocates as intransigent and adversarial when it comes to fighting for the rights of their kids. So when schools were suddenly thrust last month into the spotlight of virtual instruction—a role that many school officials and local union leaders were loath to embrace—it was a useful reminder that special education families have not been well served.
Think about it. Since the inception of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1997—which requires that all students be provided a free and appropriate public education—and before that, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, school districts have failed to satisfactorily educate many of the nation’s 7 million students with disabilities. Twenty years ago, my colleague Checker Finn, along with Andy Rotherham, described the state of play this way:
Academic progress is scant. Too few disabled youngsters graduate from high school and, for many that do, the diploma is more a mark of persistence than a certificate of attainment. Special education, moreover, has become a one-way street. It’s relatively easy to send children down this street, but they rarely return.
Not much has changed in the intervening period. Is it no wonder then that many special education advocates didn’t understand what the fuss was all about as districts struggled to get their jury-rigged remote learning programs off the ground? The problems didn’t suddenly emerge as a result of the pandemic. Indeed, IDEA has always been poorly enforced and state mandarins have often failed to take their responsibility seriously. Now everyone is supposed to believe that these same officials have magically seen the light on equity and access simply because their brick-and-mortar buildings are shuttered?
To be sure, I came across some hardheaded folks when I was a school administrator responsible for adjudicating IEP meetings, but my school district could be just as obstinate and obtuse. I heard many heartbreaking stories from my special education families—most of who were non-English or non-native English speakers—about being mistreated and disrespected as well as being patronized and taken advantage of. I didn’t have a solution to all of their grievances, but the relationships I forged with many of them helped establish a foundation of trust that has been sorely lacking between school administrators and parents of special education students. We can and must do better.
Unlike the public health crisis, which was largely out of our hands, the recent distance learning dustup was a smokescreen that focused our energy and attention on the vagaries and limitations of the law rather than the underlying place of deep frustration and disillusionment rightfully felt by many special education families. I agree with Petrilli that, when all of this is over, we should put “reforming IDEA” on the to-do list. But in the meantime, let’s not be fooled by attempts to distract us from a discomfiting truth: Special education has never been an education priority in the United States. It is incumbent upon all of us to listen to the special education community during this crisis as well as when we’re on the other side of it. And while school districts do have to worry about lawsuits, their poor track record in educating students with disabilities, regardless of the setting, remains inexcusable.
New York City has been brought to a halt; only the sirens of ambulances pierce the fateful silence. But for Success Academy students, learning continues. One week after the network launched distance learning at all forty-five schools enrolling 18,000 New York City students, I embedded in two days of classes.
At Success Academy High School for the Liberal Arts, small groups of students come together at 9:00 each morning via video for Advisory, an unstructured conversation to strengthen their community and begin their day. Their work will continue until 5:30.
I clicked into my first class via Bluejeans, a video conferencing platform. I’m glad I wasn’t late, for precisely on schedule appears Francis Keating, a young ninth-grade geometry teacher with a brisk but warm manner. No longer constrained by the physical classroom, Keating is simultaneously teaching 112 students from seven sections. “Alexa, what time is it?” he asks, turning to his digital assistant. “It’s 9:35 am in New York,” she replies. “That means it’s time to get started,” Keating adds, “so good morning and welcome!” As the pandemic raged across the city, the gesture underscored continuity—to punctuality, to the exacting use of time, to learning and opportunity.
He reminds them that at the end of the ninety-minute class, they’ll take a quiz that will count for 15 percent of their course grade. “All of you have the ability to rock it today,” he encourages, as he dives into a review problem set. Every student is expected to jot down their mathematical reasoning. “Remember to show your thinking work!” he urges.
Keating and his two co-teachers can see exactly how each of their students, sitting at their dining room tables or sprawled on their sofas, are faring because on their Chromebooks they’re using an on-screen stylus in Kami to mark up the problem. Gathered on Slack as the class proceeds, the teachers together identify emerging misconceptions and choose which student’s work to share. Within minutes, Kaitlyn is welcomed as a “guest” to present her thinking to the class. (To protect the privacy of Success’s students, I refer to them by pseudonyms.)
As she gets underway, I’m hooked, but it’s time for ninth grade pre-AP world history class with Amanda Levy. Class begins with an engaging online poll on the investiture controversy in medieval Europe. Who would prevail, the poll asks, in the installation of high church officials: the nobility or the papacy? Within seconds, seventy-two students have cast their votes. As in Keating’s class, students quickly turn to working independently, preparing brief explorations of the causes of the peasant rebellions or the erasure of Viking society as what is now Scandinavia Christianized. Levy calls on one student, Tiana, who with one click appears on screen and presents her work. It’s impeccable: “When empires failed to unify their land and people, violence, instability, and conflict arose,” Tiana had written. But even she is pushed by Levy to extend her reasoning. Tiana proposes to compare and contrast the turmoil of these times with the stability of the Roman Empire.
I caught up with Levy for a few minutes to ask her about her experience with distance learning. The first day was rough, she allowed. “A lot of students were trying to turn on their camera and mics and message all their friends.” This was an easy fix, she explained. Success quickly moved from a Bluejeans video call to a webinar mode where such interactions can better be controlled.
She’s thrilled that she can peruse each student’s production in real time. “Truthfully, I love it. It’s similar to walking around. Yes, I can’t use the tone of my voice. But it is the most written feedback on student work I’ve ever given.” Work is due from students at 10:59 every evening; they’ll all get it back with comments within twenty-four hours. “A lot of students are commenting on my comments, whereas in the past I wouldn’t have been sure if they had read them,” she enthused. The accountability, she said, “is super important. Parents have reached out to me to tell me how much they appreciate that their kids are working so hard and being held to a high bar.”
Her early findings from distance learning are fascinating. Some students seem to be faring better than in the traditional classroom, she told me. “One student told me that’s because he’s focused on the deadlines, and in class he’s sometimes distracted.” But some high-achieving students seem to be coasting.
Next up was eighth-grade math with Robert Sellers at Harlem East Middle School. The class, which explores linear and exponential functions, begins promptly with a succession of “do now” problems, thrusting students into the work. Sellers could see on Google Classroom a rolling count of exactly how many students are working on each problem. “Malik, move on! Jordan, move on,” he exhorts good naturedly. He begins to cold-call students, not relying on those who virtually raise their hands, ensuring that everyone is on their toes. “Kevin, can you tell us why your exponent is n divided by 4?” Kevin instantly comes on the screen and ably defends his thinking.
Soon, Sellers asks the students to develop an imaginary real-world scenario that matches the equation y=3(0.85)x. On screen, he watches their creativity take flight. “I can see a lot of students describing money situations. Love that. Keep in mind some of the vocabulary we’ve learned about, like depreciation—see if you incorporate that. Madison, could you read us your story for the exponential situation?” Her work appears on screen. “I said that Mario was taking Ibuprofen,” Madison says. “And 300 milliliters of Ibuprofen was in his system in the beginning, and the amount of Ibuprofen in a person’s system decreases 15 percent every hour.”
Sellers closes out the class with an exit ticket, this time a rapid-fire on-screen competition using Kahoot. As a math function appears on screen, his ninety-fix students have just seconds to choose from among four statements characterizing the function—and accumulate game points along the way. “Yes, it is y=-3 for our asymptote!” he cries. “All right,” he narrates, his tone turning to showman, “Zion moves to first place, Jeffrey takes second, Laila takes third, and Kiara is still on the board in fifth!” I struggle to keep up and win a single point.
In these virtual classes, I see all the components of what we know moves students forward, and fast. Teachers are intellectually prepared; Keating told me he plans with his colleagues for ninety minutes each day and the entire staff huddles at day’s end. Teaching follows an ambitious, coherent, and cumulative curricula that builds knowledge. There is an almost fetishistic respect for time; every minute is put to use, learning is not lost to foolish and condescending “hooks” at the start of class (the material is itself the hook), on-screen stopwatches are ubiquitous. Teachers cold-call unhesitatingly. There is an unrelenting focus on what students are producing and what their in-class work reveals about their misconceptions and mastery, allowing for real-time course corrections. And student accountability has not been suspended.
“It feels like everyone is on board,” Levy told me. In the pandemic, her colleagues understand their charge. “OK, so this is what we have to do,” she said. “If we don’t all work together, we’re not doing right by our students.”
Success Academy won’t be every parent’s choice; the program is, by American standards, demanding. But how many urban districts and networks can claim, as Success, near-universal student proficiency—that, by the state’s measure, nearly every child remains firmly on the path to college? And now, with the city shut down and schools shuttered, how many have a viable plan to prevent their students, already at grave risk, from losing ground?
Success’s teachers understand that their students—93 percent of color, and 78 percent from low-income households—are there to learn, and their schools’ solemn responsibility must be fulfilled. Especially in a time of crisis, schools must continue to offer structure and continuity. And love: the love that is high academic expectations for their students.
Yet there are growing calls for eliminating expectations altogether, in the name of compassion.
A Columbia English professor proposed this month to give all students A grades as a default, strip down work expectations to the bare minimum, and wrap up classes as quickly as possible. Another professor has counseled her colleagues to “please do a bad job putting your courses online,” and to “release yourself from high expectations right now because that’s the best way to help your students learn.”
I suspect the Success teachers I spoke with be would be horrified by this thinking. Of course schools must show grace and recognize their students’ staggering hardships. For instance, in normal times, one Success high school teacher explained to me, “We frowned on make-up work.” But if now a student needs to make up an assignment, they’ll gladly arrange for it. Similarly, elementary teachers schedule their daily FaceTime calls with each of their students at the convenience of families. But learning continues.
It will be said, foremost, that Success is privileged to have “motivated parents,” as though motivation were a finite resource, like gold in the ground, extracted and hoarded by Success. No, parent and student motivation is forged in a network’s culture—an infinitely expandable asset that effective schools mint as much as tap. Distinctive schools boldly shape culture; they present new models of engagement that other families would in time gladly emulate. Too few urban schools invite their families to truly join in the school’s mission or speak candidly about how they can best support their children’s studies. Might such expectations create new burdens for parents? Yes, but it releases them of others. In this moment, for instance, Success’s meticulously planned classes and sustained expectations for students’ work will come as a relief to many parents.
I left my virtual visit to Success impressed—and saddened. As my CRPE colleagues’ own research has found, vanishingly few urban districts yet offer synchronous learning at all, and many leave families to scour online for learning resources.
Editor’s note: This essay was first published by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.
At about the same time last year that the College Board was letting go of its previously-announced plans to add an “adversity index score” to its test result reporting to colleges, the journal Educational Policy published a research paper describing the results of an experiment which simulated a similar idea. Evidence indicates that backing down from the original idea was probably wise.
That research, conducted by a group of professors from the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa, utilizes a randomized-controlled trial using four simulated admissions packets to see if showing how students perform relative to their school and neighborhood peers influences colleges’ decisions to admit students, as well as whether including a personal essay that conveys “grit” influences admission decisions. The researchers were mainly interested in whether that additional information would increase the likelihood that applicants of low socioeconomic status (SES) would be admitted.
The sample was drawn from a pool of admission officers working at selective colleges and universities, defined as the top three tiers in Barron’s competitive rankings. Recruitment emails were sent to 960 admissions officers who met this criteria; 321 clicked on the online invitation to participate. Two experiments were tested—one where treatment participants’ applications all included median SAT test scores for the applicant’s high school and zip code (very similar to the College Board’s previously stated goal to “place students’ SAT scores in the context of their socioeconomic advantages or disadvantages.”), and the control condition where admission officers saw applicants’ own SAT test scores without the additional context. Applicant characteristics were kept constant (i.e., a white female majoring in the social sciences from the northeast). Officers were supplied with applications tailored to their university tier (1–3). The simulated files for low-SES students had more modest SAT scores assigned relative to high-SES applicants, as they tend to have lower scores on average, and also had raw SAT scores that exceeded their median high school and zip code test scores.
The second experiment tested the impact of a personal essay that portrayed grit. Each participant reviewed two applications (one high SES and one low SES) with “grit essays” and two applications (high and low SES again) with a standard personal statement. One grit essay described what it was like growing up in a home without a father and with a mother who worked long hours to support her family; the second was about growing up as the daughter of an alcoholic. Both conveyed how the student had overcome adversity, highlighting the skills she had developed because of her experiences. The researchers used a variety of analytic methods, including multilevel logistic regression with acceptance recommendations nested within participants.
Their key finding was that admissions officers in the treatment condition were significantly more likely to accept both the low SES and high SES applicants than were those officers not provided with the additional context around SAT scores. In fact, the magnitude of the marginal effects (ranging from 9–11 percentage points) was roughly the same across applicants, such that the low-SES students did not differentially benefit. So even though the intervention may have helped low-SES students be admitted, it did not level the playing field.
Moreover, admissions officers were not more likely to accept the applicants who conveyed grit in their essays. Overall, those essays were not significantly related to the probability of acceptance. The research team suggests that perhaps first-person essays simply aren’t the best way to convey non-cognitive traits such as perseverance; they posit that letters of recommendation or a record of extracurricular activities may be more informative in that regard.
Efforts to identify high school graduates coming from poverty who could succeed and thrive in selective institutions are laudable. But providing comparative peer data alone won’t do it. The means to make more of these youngsters stand out stem largely from a high-quality K–12 education: high expectations, terrific instruction, and rigorous content delivered from the earliest grades possible.
SOURCE: Michael N. Bastedo, et. al., “Contextualizing the SAT: Experimental Evidence on College Admission Recommendations for Low-SES Applicants,” Educational Policy (September 2019).
The education reform world is beset by many constant refrains. “Give schools more money,” for example, “recruit more highly-trained teachers,” or “schools need more autonomy.” But what do these things actually mean when put into practice? If reform is as easy as that, then why hasn’t someone done it already?
In a report from Bellwether Education Partners, Kelly Robson, Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, and Phillip Burgoyne-Allen examine the design of autonomous schools in four states to give us an answer: It’s not that easy. Autonomous schools are public schools that exchange more school-level decision-making power for greater accountability, and they vary greatly in their design, making it difficult to say if they “work” or “don’t work” for improving student outcomes. The report analyzes different components—school autonomy and governance structure, accountability measures, and implementation—and gives recommendations to policymakers and school leaders.
These distinct components create a wide range in what’s considered an “autonomous school.” Governance structure refers to which entities oversee decision making and to whom schools are held accountable. A school may be managed by a district, an independent organization, or some combination of the two. In a tightly managed school, oversight decisions are made by a school board and district leaders or by an independent board, such as a charter management organization. In an autonomous school, school leaders have the liberty to make certain (or all) decisions. The areas over which they have control—including curriculum, length of school day, staff, etc.—vary according to what schools wants to accomplish. To make sure it’s working, a relevant, data-based accountability system is essential to understanding which aspects of autonomy are supporting the school’s goals and which are not.
To create a successful autonomous school, the report contends that policymakers and school leaders must be conscious of the purpose for increased autonomy, how the specific aspects of autonomy will be designed to address that purpose, and how accountability structures will determine which autonomous features are successful in that design. For the school to reach its intended goals, coherence among all these elements is crucial. “Autonomy is not a single thing,” the authors write, so there isn’t a single “what works” solution. Establishing and running an autonomous school must be a mindful and purposeful process.
Navigating all these nuances to design an effective autonomous school is difficult enough. Ensuring that school leaders and teachers are prepared to implement autonomous policies is an additional challenge. It’s not safe to assume that, for example, principals given budgetary autonomy will know how to leverage this to reach their schools’ goals. For school leaders to manage an autonomous school, the report points out, they will likely need additional training and support to prepare them to make pertinent decisions. It’s also important to consider how autonomous policies could affect teaching and instruction. What supports will there be to help teachers use data systems to inform and adjust their decision making? Is asking them to do this feasible or overburdening? Being cognizant of capacity building in school staff is essential to ensuring the successful implementation of autonomous school policies, the report notes.
It also describes some autonomous schools as uniquely able to involve local communities in school decision-making, saying, “Autonomous school policies are one way that policymakers are attempting to return to a truer sense of local control while also focusing on improving student outcomes.” While this could potentially increase buy-in, it could also affect consistency and quality if schools are trying to appease the needs of a variety of non-professional stakeholders. But it could also be beneficial if autonomous schools were liberated from the often highly-bureaucratic school systems that don’t necessarily prioritize the needs of families and were instead more responsive to those whose children are being served by the school.
The biggest takeaways from this report are ones that can be applied to all education policy matters: intention, coherence, and follow-through. Autonomous schools shouldn’t be instituted just because it seems like it’s “what works.” Policymakers and school leaders should be intentional about what their goals are and tailor specific aspects of autonomy to reach those goals. School leaders and teachers must be supported in the capacity-building necessary to implement autonomous policies, and to partner effectively with community members. Relevant accountability structures should be in place to ensure autonomy is working. And if it isn’t, data systems should be utilized to adjust what’s not. Intention, coherence, and follow-through are important to the success of any policy, but especially so when our end goal is to improve the lives of the students we serve.
SOURCE: Kelly Robson, Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, and Phillip Burgoyne-Allen, “Staking Out the Middle Ground: Policy Design for Autonomous Schools,” Bellwether Education (February 2020).
On this week’s podcast, Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss district innovation in the face of country-wide school closures. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines whether Teach For America corps members still improve student outcomes even after a major national scale-up.
Amber's Research Minute
Melissa A. Clark and Eric Isenberg, “Do Teach for America Corps Members Still Improve Student Achievement? Evidence from a Randomized Controlled Trial of Teach for America’s Scale-Up Effort,” Education Finance and Policy (March 3, 2020).