Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of posts about envelope-pushing strategies that schools might embrace to address students’ learning loss in the wake of the pandemic.
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of posts about envelope-pushing strategies that schools might embrace to address students’ learning loss in the wake of the pandemic. Find the first three posts here, here, and here.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been exploring various options that elementary schools might embrace next fall when (let’s hope!) almost all kids are back in school full time and the focus shifts to academic recovery.
That’s also the focus of a set of crowd-sourced recommendations that we plan to release later this month, based on the best evidence from rigorous research studies. The suggestions will look familiar. By their nature, evidence-based practices don’t tend to be very innovative. Among them: aim for acceleration, not remediation; ensure that tutoring and other extended-learning opportunities are closely tied to regular classroom instruction and curriculum; work as hard at getting the school’s culture right as offering beefed-up mental health services, since a great culture is what’s going to largely determine whether kids get the social and emotional support they most need; and build everything around a set of high-quality, content-rich instructional materials.
That plan takes as given that most students, ready or not, will move ahead to the next grade level next fall. That’s the path of least resistance, especially at a time when everybody, from teachers to parents to kids, is exhausted by the disruptions of the past year and desperate to get back to normal. In great schools, well-supported teachers will do what they can to help accelerate students’ learning, such as focusing on the highest-priority content in the previous grades to fill in any key gaps in learning, spending most of their time on grade-level instruction, assessing students regularly to inform mid-course corrections, and making limited but strategic use of small groups to better tailor their teaching to the needs of individual kids.
Still, as readers of this series already know, I’m skeptical that such strategies will do enough to address the significant learning loss that so many kids have experienced. Lots of students will start the 2021–22 school year much further behind than usual—and usual, in the pre-pandemic days, was pretty darn bad. While teaching grade-level content isn’t a bad rule to follow, perhaps that rule needs to be broken for kids who have effectively missed an entire year of school.
That’s why I’ve been floating the idea of a “second 2nd grade”—either for all kids, or all kids in high-poverty elementary schools, where most students were already achieving below grade level before the Covid-19 crisis hit, or at least for the “Covid Kindergarten Cohort.” Millions of children nationwide have been stuck at home for a whole year. For the littlest ones, remote learning has been a cruel joke. Why not give them their pandemic year back? At least the kids who need it?
But even that strategy doubles down on grade levels—quite literally. So today let’s climb the Mount Everest of educational practice: How might we truly personalize instruction and blow up the whole notion of “grade levels” so that elementary students can learn at their own pace, and get what they need as they recover from the pandemic? So that, every single day, every single pupil experiences just the right amount of challenge without feeling either bored on the one hand or overwhelmed on the other? And in a way that ensures that the farthest-behind kids—including and especially kids in poverty and kids of color—don’t stay that way, but make it back to grade level within a reasonable amount of time?
These are great questions, but there are no easy answers. If there were, every school in America would be doing personalized learning already. But for elementary-age children especially, it’s really quite hard to figure out how to let them “move at their own pace.”
What makes personalized learning so hard for the littlest kiddos?
First, much of what the youngest learners are supposed to master in school is about how to behave and get along with other kids and adults. Personalized instruction doesn’t make a lot of sense when we’re talking about sitting still during story time, lining up for bathroom breaks, or making it to the cafeteria and back without incident. Furthermore, American schools’ emphasis on collaborative learning makes it somewhat harder to “personalize” each child’s education. Teachers ask students to work on projects together, to discuss stories with their peers, to solve math problems with partners, to edit one another’s writing. Some of this group learning can certainly be overdone, but we do it because we care about developing important social skills like teamwork, and also because these methods can help children master the Three R’s and much more. Plus, especially in the shadow of a traumatic event like the pandemic, building relationships between students and their teachers, and students and one another, is essential to the learning process. Kids are social beings, not knowledge-acquisition machines.
Second, personalized pacing is tricky for the youngest kids because of our discomfort with grouping students homogeneously, with other kids with similar current abilities or readiness levels. This is of course an age-old method, with classes divided up between the Bluebirds, the Redbirds, and the Yellowbirds, so that Ms. Smith can work with small groups of children who are all at about the same level in reading or math on a given day.
The discomfort comes from research showing that kids in the lowest group rarely catch up, both because the level of instruction is not challenging enough, and because of negative peer effects. Almost everyone benefits from being challenged with grade-level instruction (if provided appropriate “scaffolds”), and almost everyone benefits from getting to learn along with higher-achieving students who serve as positive role models, ask better questions, and model good work. It also doesn’t help that the kiddos invariably figure out what’s going on—that the Redbirds are the top group and the Yellowbirds are the bottom.
Our squeamishness about grouping has a parallel in the older grades, where we worry about tracking, and whether the lowest track is in fact a slow track to nowhere. Yet, tracking is still widespread, especially in affluent communities, and particularly in math, where we simply accept that some middle school and high school kids are going to be further along the mathematical progression than others. And we accept—in high school and college—the notion of “prerequisites.” It doesn’t make sense to enroll students in French 3 if they haven’t mastered French 2, to say nothing of French 1.
These challenges around grouping could certainly be overcome, but it’s going to take real R & D to figure out promising approaches and take it to scale. Ideally, we’d want someone to build a model like the middle school Teach to One math program, where high-quality daily assessments and an ever-improving algorithm regroups students on a daily basis, and helps teachers know precisely which knowledge and skills to cover tomorrow. It takes this sort of high-tech magic because kids don’t learn in straight lines; their trajectories are jagged, and they vary across subject areas and within particular domains. No teacher has the capacity to figure out how to group students perfectly, day in and day out, on top of their other responsibilities.
Next week we’ll examine some promising examples of schools that have successful tackled these challenges and opened the door to effective personalized learning in the early grades. As we’ll see, it’s not for the faint of heart.
I welcomed the venture when it launched two years ago, have advised it via several of its committees and feedback sessions, have done a bit of back-room prodding and editing, and have encouraged my Fordham Institute colleagues to sign on as an institutional backer. One hopeful sign is the large number of such backers and endorsers and the wide range of views and priorities they represent. Another encouraging example of the project’s wide appeal is the supportive editorial in the Wall Street Journal by six former U.S. education secretaries, three from each party.
The backdrop to my own (and Fordham’s) support is the appalling state of history and civics education in today’s United States. Our own team is nearing completion of a comprehensive review of state standards for K–12 schooling in those two subjects. While I can’t divulge any specifics, I can say with certainty that many states have bungled it via standards with thin-to-nonexistent content, huge gaps, and such a mishmash of formats that it’s nearly impossible to picture teachers and curriculum developers actually following them.
Perhaps as revealed by the slipshod expectations for student learning signaled by their motley standards (albeit with some stellar exceptions), states mostly don’t seem to care whether kids learn this stuff. Though most retain the obligatory high school U.S. history course, and a fair number have a required course (often just a single semester) in civics or U.S. government, rare is the state where schools’ success in imparting this vitally important knowledge, skills, and dispositions to their pupils figures in the their accountability plan. Often there are no statewide assessments or other outcome measures, and when there are, they seldom count. (Okay, yes, students must pass the required courses, but that’s teacher judgment.)
Maybe it wouldn’t matter so much if adult Americans were well versed in their country’s history, governing principles, system of government, and civic institutions—and if they took that knowledge to heart and acted in accord with it. But—I don’t really need to write this sentence!—we have ample evidence, accumulating by the day and week, and faster with every passing month, that that just isn’t so. Unless you haven’t looked at any sort of screen or newspaper in the past few years, you’re well acquainted with this meltdown and the havoc it is wreaking on so much that so many have long cherished about the United States.
Schools alone can’t solve that problem, but what kids learn there can contribute to a much-needed solution. So the EAD team heroically undertook to develop a “roadmap” by which schools (and districts, states, etc.) can reinvigorate history and civics education.
Predictably, this was hard, as much of what divides Americans has its counterpart in K–12 social studies. “Action civics” versus “how a bill becomes a law.” Skills versus knowledge. “1619” versus “1776.” “Wars, presidents, and other great men” versus “the history of the oppressed and victimized.” I could go on.
The EAD team strove to enlist a wide range of participants as they sought a middle ground. They also finessed the toughest questions by posing their entire new “roadmap” as a series of questions that kids should wrestle with and be able to answer rather than trying to prescribe answers to those questions. The questions are really good—and eighteen-year-olds who possess informed and thoughtful answers to them will be well prepared for citizenship in the American democracy. But the roadmap is a long way from an actual curriculum.
That’s left to states, districts, schools, and teachers. Thus the hard work that lies ahead. The EAD team also had to finesse some of the stickiest “who does what” questions. They avoided telling states to build history and civics into formal accountability structures for schools or students. They avoided prescribing the many enormous changes that will have to occur in teacher preparation. They sketched a very limited role for the federal government, though one that may bring its own culture wars as, for example, NAEP frameworks for assessing these subjects get revised and one that could metastasize in worrisome ways if some of EAD’s friends on Capitol Hill get their way.
So there’s no dreaded “national curriculum” here, at least not yet, and that avoids a lot of problems for the time being. But neither is there a curriculum here (!), much less an energy source to push and coordinate all the moving parts that need to move together. Documents like this are, of necessity, predicated on so many individuals, organizations, and institutions changing their present practices. Perhaps most worrying, the changes sought by EAD cannot happen at scale without a skilled and well-educated teaching force that is dedicated to breadth and balance, equipped with a rich and robust curriculum, and capable of delivering it. The EAD team knows this, but nothing within their power will cause a seamless silken duvet to replace today’s patchwork quilt. So this elegant roadmap and its many supporting documents and supporters become, inevitably, something of an aspirational exercise that starts a conversation, even as we know that getting K–12 education back into the business of citizen-making is a long-term enterprise. EAD supplies plenty of thoughtful advice to all concerned, yet today our K–12 system is ill-equipped to deliver on all those things.
That’s why my admiration and bullishness for what the EAD team has achieved must be tempered by my shaky confidence that it will make the difference that American education needs.
Despite last week’s announcement by the U.S. Department of Education that it won’t grant blanket testing waivers this year, a number of states have decided to push for one anyway. Some of them read the guidance from the feds and see an opening to use local formative assessments in lieu of large-scale statewide summative exams. To wit, Michigan will seek approval to use their “benchmark assessments” to fulfill federal testing requirements.
In weighing the trade-offs of using local assessments for this purpose, it may be instructive to look at how the National Football League is handling the cancellation of its premier, “high-stakes test” for college football players: the NFL scouting combine.
For the uninitiated, the combine is a week-long evaluation ordinarily held every February at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, where pro-football prospects perform physical and mental drills in front of general managers, coaches, and scouts. The event allows personnel directors to evaluate players in a standardized setting, and it enables athletes to affect their draft status, salary, and career trajectory. A player with a sub-par college record, for example, can improve their “draft stock” considerably through a strong showing at the combine. According to NFL analyst Chris Trapasso, the cancellation of this year’s combine will have a profound impact on the entire draft class—the fallout from which offers lessons for the current testing debate in education.
First, going back to education, expect an honesty gap if states solely rely upon local exams. Absent the combine, the NFL will use their “pro days,” a decentralized process that involves evaluating athletes at university campuses. Trapasso believes football fans must take these local evaluations with a grain of salt:
Be ready for some insane times and measurements. It’s been difficult to trust pro days because of their exaggerating tendencies. This year, they're really all we have (along with any “combines” held by workout facilities). And we all know college programs love pumping out those 4.2 [second] times in the 40 [yard dash] and those lightning-quick three-cone drills.
Trapasso’s concerns about the variation in performance between the combine and pro days also get at the differences between formative and summative assessments in our schools, and the variable investment we’re inclined to make in each. This is not to say summative tests will present a flawless picture of student performance during the pandemic, but they will provide a useful check against the other measures schools and systems have employed thus far.
Second, standardized tests are an invaluable tool for revealing human potential. The combine is known for unearthing NFL-caliber talent at lower levels in college. Without the combine’s standardized process, small school draft prospects will have a harder time standing out. In education, the stakes are arguably even higher. Few understand this dilemma better than congressional sensation Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has often noted that her own public school teachers didn’t recognize her promise. “It wasn’t until I took a high-stakes test where I scored in the 99th percentile across the board where they figured out I did not need remedial education,” she once recalled. “It took a test instead of understanding the child in front of them.” Testing skeptics like to dismiss comments like Ocasio-Cortez’s out of hand. But for students like her, objective and standardized tests are a veritable lifeline.
Finally, there’s the complementary relationship of formative and summative assessments. Even the combine includes a standardized exam, the Wonderlic Test, and the standards for various evaluations like bench press and vertical jump are customized depending on the position. But as helpful as these analytics are, teams will still make bad predictions about who will become a star player. Similarly, state summative exams are but one measure and, importantly, the only one states have that offers comparability from district to district. Of course, local assessments are more instructionally valuable, but they’re often not peer reviewed to control for quality or bias. Which is to say, states should be considering the assets and limitations of both rather than pitting one against the other.
The upshot is that, while state test results will be tough to interpret this year, the alternatives are even worse. Forgoing large scale testing altogether made sense last spring when the pandemic first hit, but there’s little excuse to put our collective heads in the sand this time around. If distancing is the obstacle to testing this year, we should be turning performing arts centers, hotels, and empty arenas into testing sites and, if necessary, leveraging weekends and evenings, too. The dearth of creativity and imagination on the administration of state testing—one year into this calamity—is simply beneath our nation’s dignity.
If the feds give these states the green light on subbing out summative exams, they should do so with eyes wide open. There’s a reason why some state leaders won’t cancel state testing regardless of what Uncle Sam says, while others will comb every avenue to weasel out of them. At least the NFL has game film as a fall back to evaluate athletes. Schools do not. But states can and should encourage their districts to test as many students as possible. Anything less would be an abdication of their responsibility to exercise de minimis oversight over the largest budget item on their books.
Yes, I blurbed it—and I like it. Yes, a visitor to our home, a worldly and skeptical sort, hefted it and looked at the title and asked me “Isn’t that awfully thick for a book about optimism regarding American public education?”
Maybe he’s right. I blow hot and cold about the future prospects of our K–12 system. (Mike Petrilli usually calls me “Mr. Glass Half-empty.”) But Jay Mathews’s new book is well worth your attention even though you may wind up wishing he hadn’t written it.
For one thing, he’s wonderfully readable. For another, after many, many decades reporting on the subject, both in the Washington Post and in nine—count ‘em—nine previous books, he knows as much about American education as anyone alive. And he knows it in a truly rare combination of “up close and personal” and “coolly analytic.” He’s got both street cred and authorial cred.
So why, after all of that, all that he’s seen, all that he’s reported, all that he’s uncovered, does he call himself an optimist? In this book, he concentrates on three large sets of developments—“movements” he calls them—that give him reason for hope.
In a section called “challenging average kids,” he delves into Advanced Placement—which he’s long touted, so long as it opens its doors to all who might benefit—and other strategies for filling students’ minds with more than anybody might have thought they could handle. Not just the platitude we know as “high expectations,” but actual difficult material to learn and master. He’s a strong believer that almost every child can rise to the occasion and handle more than our standard-issue curriculum doles out. And he sees more and more of that happening around the country. Which gives him hope.
Then come “super charters,” the high performing charter schools and networks that he’s written about over the years—including a great book on KIPP—and that have demonstrated their ability to boost the skills, knowledge, and life prospects of tens of thousands of poor and minority kids. They’ve shown that it can be done—is being done—which leads Mathews to the obvious optimistic conclusion that a lot more of it can and should be done.
Finally comes a somewhat tortured section in which Jay declares himself an aficionado of “progressive education,” which he finds “old but vibrant” and therefore a basis for optimism. In this part, however—the part I personally find least persuasive—Jay ends up debating himself and arguing with famous proponents of educational progressivism, including, at some length, my former close colleague Diane Ravitch. He finds some appealing examples, but he also points to ways that progressivism can go off the tracks of rigor and equity.
Be warned, fellow education reformers. There’s much here that you will probably nod in agreement with. Yet “The three significant movements examined in this book,” he writes in the epilogue, “have all been led by teachers...[N]early everything I have learned about American education over the last four decades has come from teachers and principals.” Which is to say, it hasn’t come from researchers, technocrats, politicians, philanthropists, or self-styled reformers. None of them, he concludes, has anywhere near as many truly effective strategies for giving kids what they really need as do school-based practitioners.
Put that in your pipe and take a puff.
SOURCE: Jay Mathews, An Optimist’s Guide to American Public Education (Santa Anita Publishing, 2021).
States embraced school turnaround efforts in the wake of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in the early 2000s. These took various forms at first, as each state pursued their own turnaround strategies per NCLB’s requirements. School Improvement Grants were added to the mix in the Obama years—that is, funding to assist improvement efforts specifically in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools—kicking that transformative work into overdrive. Most pundits have been bearish on the outcomes writ large, especially in terms of scale and cost. But what have researchers found? A recent meta-analysis of impact evaluation studies published by the Annenberg Institute provides a detailed look from across the country.
Researchers from the University of Virginia, Harvard University, and the Education Trust initially identified an astonishing 11,120 published studies related to school turnaround efforts between 2000 and 2018. Refinement for content and rigor brought the total to 207. The final criteria focused on specific types of interventions studied (such as charter conversion, state takeover, technical assistance, “transformation,” or “turnaround”), academic outcomes examined (seven outcomes were identified, including test scores, suspension rates, attendance, graduation, and grade progression), and research methodology utilized (difference in differences, regression discontinuity, randomized control, instrumental variables, and matching). Sixty-seven studies met all the criteria, which between them included 141 total academic outcome estimates upon which the meta-analysis was conducted. Both the intervention types and the academic outcomes were coded and then compared.
Researchers found that the average intervention effort demonstrated modest but positive results on math test scores, and positive but not significant effects on English language arts (ELA) scores. Results suggested positive effects on school attendance, reduced disciplinary infractions, and increased graduation rates. Importantly, there was no evidence of negative effects on low-stakes testing or tests in other subjects like science or the humanities, which suggests observed improvements were a result of real learning gains rather than data manipulation or other systemic gaming. It is noteworthy that math test score improvement was most pronounced among Hispanic students.
Researchers found that there weren’t really any outstanding differences in effects by intervention type. Still, charter conversion was observed to be more successful at improving math outcomes than other strategies, and districtwide interventions yielded larger results than those targeted at individual school buildings. The two most effective features were extended learning time and teacher replacement, both of which produced statistically significant improvement in both math and ELA outcomes. Tutoring and wraparound services were shown to have positive albeit modest effects. Positive results began to appear one year after the start of intervention, which stands to reason given the traditional school year calendar. But the longer the duration of the intervention, the larger the effects observed.
Taken as a whole, school improvement efforts had a small but statistically significant average effect of 0.062 standard deviations on math achievement, and a smaller but not significant effect on ELA. While this is not necessarily a reason to jump for joy, small positive effects in a wide range of outcomes and no observed negative effects are a far cry from the conclusion that “it’s all bad.” Unfortunately, there were no data provided on the cost of interventions, nor an analysis of the return on investment. It seems likely that the costs outweighed the benefits observed, even at this level of detail. However, it cannot be denied that improvement is improvement, especially for schools which have been underperforming for years.
Other research, including our own, has shown the benefits of charter schools in terms of both teaching and learning, thus the fact that charter conversion showed strong positive results on math achievement makes sense. Ditto for teacher replacement. In the end it seems as though both schools of thought can be correct at once: Small pockets of positive outcomes clearly resulted from the turnaround effort, and the effort as a whole can still be thought of as not entirely successful.
SOURCE: Beth E. Schueler, et. al., “Improving Low-Performing Schools: A Meta-Analysis of Impact Evaluation Studies,” retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University (August 2020).
On this week’s podcast, education policy wonk Karen Vaites joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss her experience leading a return-to-school movement in New York City—and beyond. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines how the admissions policies of Boston’s exam schools affect racial diversity.
Amber's Research Minute
Melanie Rucinski and Joshua Goodman, “Racial Diversity and Measuring Merit: Evidence from Boston's Exam School Admissions,” Education Finance and Policy (February 25, 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.
- States weigh their options to comply with Biden’s request that standardized testing resume this year. —EdWeek
- Iowa’s governor signed a bill requiring all schools to offer in-person instruction five days a week, overpowering reluctant school boards and teachers unions. —Washington Post
- “For some Black students, remote learning has offered a chance to thrive.” —NPR
- Policymakers should fund career and technical education to boost the income and marriageability of young men. —AEI
- Richard Carranza resigns as NYC School Chancellor after disagreements with Mayor Bill de Blasio over gifted and talented programs and school segregation. —New York Times
- Only 37 percent of kindergarteners are on track to be proficient readers, compared to 55 percent last year. Gaps are especially pronounced for Black and Hispanic students. —The 74
- A proposed bill in Oregon would allow school administrators to retain teachers based on merit and race/ethnicity instead of seniority when budget crises require layoffs. —MSN News
- Philadelphia parents are frustrated with school closures, and are running for office, opting for private school, and taking other actions. —New York Times
- No, it’s not racist to discuss achievement gaps or how to close them. —Ed100 Blog
- States did not lose as much tax revenue as we may have feared, with some actually taking in more money in 2020 than in 2019. —New York Times
- Our nation’s struggle with the pandemic was caused, in part, by poor leadership. But it was also a result of the inherent fragmentation of decision making in American federalism. —Matthew Yglesias