Many low-income parents and parents of color are in solidarity with most teachers in not wanting their children to return to school buildings until the pandemic has passed. One obvious explanation is that low-income communities and communities of color have been much harder hit by the virus than their more advantaged peers. But there’s likely something else: Many low-income and working-class parents simply don’t trust their kids’ schools to keep them safe.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that this crisis has thrown all of us for a loop. We humans aren’t built for something so unnerving, so unprecedented in our own lifetimes, so mysterious and hard to understand and out of control. We might view our own brains as perfectly rational, but despite our best efforts, we’re going to grasp for the familiar in times like this, including familiar ways of thinking.
For those of us who spend our professional lives in the world of K–12 education policy, that means reaching for familiar and comfortable, if perhaps shopworn, explanations for the insane moment we’re living through, as 35,000 private schools, 13,000 school districts, and 7,000 charter schools struggle separately to make decisions about whether to open for in-person education, and if so, how. All this amid an ugly public debate about how to balance the health and safety needs of kids, families, and educators with the educational mission of our schools. So it is that we hear these common refrains:
- The teachers unions are using the crisis to squeeze more money out of a desperate public!
- President Trump and Betsy DeVos are using the crisis to attack public schools and promote their privatization agenda!
- Democratic governors are putting the needs of adults and special interests over the needs of kids, who belong in school!
- Republican governors are trying to divert attention from their failure to control the virus, while putting teachers in harm’s way!
My priors, meanwhile, push me toward seeing things through the prism of power politics. I came to education reform as a political science major way back when, impressed with the Chubb and Moe explanation of why so many schools serving poor kids were mediocre or worse. (Remember? It’s because teachers and administrators have all the power and poor parents have none. Rich parents, meanwhile, have the most power of all. So of course schools in affluent suburbs are opening for in-person instruction, while those in cities stay shuttered.)
There’s a bit of truth in all of these analyses and explanations. But they fail to capture the full truth because they rely on old heuristics to address a totally new situation.
Most critically, what should we make of the fact that the (low-income) parents of the kids who most need to be in school—academically, socially, emotionally—are overwhelmingly scared to send them there? If this debate comes down to a power play pitting teachers against families and employees against clients, how to explain the fact that many of the clients are just as opposed to in-person school as the employees are?
This, to me, is the crucial fact of the entire reopening debate: Low-income parents and parents of color are in solidarity with most teachers in not wanting their children to return to school buildings until the pandemic has passed. Sixty-four percent of Black parents want remote learning, versus just 32 percent of White parents. According to Education Week:
The data also show that a majority of families who make less than $50,000 a year wanted schools to avoid in-person instruction entirely for the 2020–21 school year. By contrast, only 27 percent of families who make more than $150,000 a year wanted remote-only schooling. While counterintuitive for the families who often have the least job flexibility and the greatest need to get back to work quickly, the finding is in line with other recent surveys.
What accounts for this race and class disparity in parental preferences? The obvious explanation is that low-income communities and communities of color have been much harder hit by the virus than their more advantaged peers. Poor parents of color are much likelier to know someone who has been seriously ill, or even died, from Covid-19, and they are responding with much more caution as a result.
That’s surely part of it. But I suspect there’s something else. I bet that many low-income and working-class parents don’t trust their kids’ schools to keep them safe. And here again they are not wrong. Their children have had the misfortune to attend schools that are (in too many cases) dysfunctional across the board. They can’t teach their pupils to read or write. They can’t keep their classrooms safe and orderly. Why would they succeed in helping students maintain social distance, or respond to an outbreak with care and competence?
Teachers, too. Many of them also have to toil in school buildings and districts that are dysfunctional, that struggle to provide them with basic tools of the trade, that select terrible textbooks, that tie their hands when it comes to disciplining students, that spend scarce dollars on dubious professional development programs or the latest technology instead of boosting their pay, that embrace the Peter Principle as the cornerstone of their principal pipelines. If they cannot trust their district bureaucracies to keep them safe, enforce mask mandates, provide personal protective equipment, send sick kids home, and all the rest, can we really blame them?
Yes, there are some high-trust school districts out there, and I would posit that they are much more likely to open in person or in hybrid fashion, as long as the local rate of infection allows it. Same goes for high-quality charter schools—though probably not low-quality charter schools. If we believe that it’s just about power—do parents get what they want, including in person instruction if they want it?—then we should expect most charters to open (again as long as the health conditions allow it). After all, they need to keep their customers happy. But if it’s about trust, then even “empowered” charter-school parents will keep their kids home if they aren’t sure they’ll be safe at school. And those low-quality charter schools will also have a harder time getting their teachers to show up, even though they’re not unionized.
You go to war with the army you have—not the army you might wish you have. We face this crisis with the schools we have, not the schools we might wish to have. And in too many places, those schools have not built reservoirs of trust with their families or their staff. Now we live with the consequences.
The tremor that you felt last week was the dropping of a new Emily Hanford radio documentary, “What the Words Say: Many kids struggle with reading—and children of color are far less likely to get the help they need.” Since she started reporting on reading several years ago, Hanford has kept up the pressure on the scourge of educational malpractice that is America’s approach to reading instruction. Her formula is simple but effective: gut-wrenching stories interwoven with science, data, and a just-the-facts-ma’am ethos.
Clocking in at just under fifty-three minutes, Hanford’s latest entry hones in on how early reading problems are particularly acute with Black, Hispanic, and Native American students. Unlike White and Asian children who often have more opportunities to develop E.D. Hirsch’s concept of cultural literacy at home, low-income children of color often attend schools that fall short in building content knowledge, vocabulary, and reading comprehension, a failure from which they rarely fully recover.
Hanford’s first documentary on reading, now three years old, explored how poorly kids with dyslexia are being served. Her next two tackled the broader problem of reading instruction failure, stemming from misbegotten strategies and schools’ refusal to teach decoding. This time, Hanford delves deep into the importance of building knowledge and vocabulary so kids can understand the words they decode—lest they start the path toward dropping out of school and being consigned to the criminal justice system.
Indeed, in a windowless cinderblock room at a juvenile detention facility in Houston, Hanford sat in on a cringeworthy reading lesson with a fifteen-year-old that had been failed by his teachers and his schools:
He was trying to read a story about a man taking a bus ride. Occasionally, he’d successfully sound out and there’d be a flash of recognition. “Woman!” he exclaimed after slowly decoding the word. But it was clear from earlier in the lesson that Mateo didn’t know the meaning of a lot of the words he was trying to say: fleet, sneer, gloat. If someone had read the story out loud to him, he wouldn’t have understood it all.
Listening to Mateo struggle and labor through the words was as painful as it was heartbreaking, to think what might have been had he been explicitly taught how to decode words earlier in his life. Rather than entering the downward spiral that locked him into purgatory as a beginning reader into his teens, he would have been lifted up by the virtuous cycle created when young children, fluent in decoding, recognize words they haven’t seen but have heard many times.
My daughter, who will be entering kindergarten in a couple of weeks, is a prime example of the Matthew Effect described by reading researchers and underscored by Hanford in her piece. Before ever setting foot inside her new school, she’s already reading at a fourth-grade level, and is particularly voracious when it comes to anything written by Mo Willems, Dav Pilkey, or Aaron Blabey. I’ve been paying close attention to her language comprehension by chatting with her on all sorts of topics and exposing her to a bounty of experiences outside of school to build her background knowledge, which is the whole ballgame when it comes to being literate.
Of course, the effort I’ve invested in my daughter’s reading stems from an abiding love, but it also comes after years spent in schools and recognizing that I needed to obtain an insurance policy against the risk of her becoming a struggling reader. As Hanford soberly observes, America’s schools reflexively believe one of two things when a child stumbles. One, there must be a problem at home (he wasn’t read to enough), or two, there must be a problem with the child (he has a learning disability). It seldom occurs to schools to hold up the mirror and admit they never taught the child how to read.
Honesty and responsibility on the part of schools would have made all the difference for Sonya Thomas, a Nashville mother profiled by Hanford, whose pleas to address the reading problems of her son, C.J., went unanswered until he reached the seventh grade, when she learned that he was only reading at a second-grade level. Left to slip through the cracks, the overdue revelation brought Thomas to tears, as it surely does for millions of parents like her who place their faith in schools to ensure their children master the most basic and most fundamental academic skill. Infuriated, Thomas is now a woman on a mission to help families avoid the grotesque dereliction of duty on the part of those charged with the education and care of C.J., Mateo, and countless children now staring down the barrel of a needlessly difficult life as an adult.
In the wake of national unrest and a renewed demand for racial justice, and on the eve of a back-to-school season unlike any in memory, Hanford’s newest offering is timely because it travels upstream to remind us why these deep-seated inequalities among U.S. children continue to persist. On national reading tests, more than 80 percent of Black and Native American students score below proficient, and 77 percent of Hispanic students remain mired under that same threshold. Making matters worse, many parents don’t know how far behind their kids are until it’s too late.
As inexcusable as this state of affairs may be, it’s unclear how things are supposed to improve in the time of Covid-19. If Hanford makes one thing palpable through her reporting, it’s that schools have a hard enough of a time teaching children how to read when the lessons are conducted in-person, let alone through the keyhole of Zoom. With many schools planning to remain physically shuttered through at least the first semester, if not longer, they would do well to leverage the wealth of resources available to bridge the gap. If they don’t, the Matthew Effect on reading comprehension will take hold and never let go.
The private schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, are breathing a sigh of relief that, after much sturm und drang this past week, they’re back in charge of their own decisions about whether and how to re-open. This comes after the county ordered them to stay closed, then the governor moved to countermand the county’s authority to do so, then the county balked at carrying out the governor’s order, whereupon confusion reigned, and urgent late-in-the-game litigation seemed all but certain. On Friday, the county backed down. Whew!
Montgomery County contains about 130 private schools, which range from high-priced, elite, independent schools with sprawling campuses (one of them attended by fourteen-year-old Barron Trump) to low-cost, semi-urban, parochial schools serving poor and working-class kids, many of them Black, Brown, or immigrants. For comparison, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), one of the country’s largest districts, operates more than 200 schools.
When county health officer Travis Gayles issued his August 1 order forbidding them to open, the school the president’s son attends in upscale Potomac, according to the Washington Post, “had published in-depth reopening guidelines calling for constant mask-wearing, lunch eaten outdoors, staggered dismissal from classes, and ‘scheduled hand washing times.’” A Catholic K–8 school in middle-class Kemp Mill reportedly had made “exhaustive precautions to ensure the safety of its roughly 300 students, preparing for health screenings and spacing out desks. The school, which charges roughly $8,400 per student, had offered families a choice between three models...100 percent in-person learning, three days of in-person learning each week and fully virtual learning.” These and kindred schools around the county were doing what private schools have long done: charting their own courses, making their own decisions, maybe following their own karma, gauging their environments, examining the health data, and listening to their clients. Whether to open, how to open, and what choices to offer families all were in their own purview, and there was no reason to expect school A, school B, or school C to do it the same way, even if MCPS had to standardize its own plan.
Dr. Gayles’s original directive said no private schools in Montgomery County could open physically until at least October 1. Consternation followed, with innumerable angry and disappointed parents and school people objecting to this overturning of their own careful plans for the new year, as well as the unprecedented usurpation of the schools’ autonomy. Some schools said they would comply, while others appealed to Governor Larry Hogan. Attorneys were hired and lawsuits readied. Then Hogan responded on August 3 with an amended executive order denying the state’s local governments, all of which are counties except for Baltimore City, the authority to order schools closed, though they remained free to make their own rules for just about everything else.
This was a peculiar use of executive action, and it’s not clear what statutory or constitutional authority Hogan was relying on to create this carve-out for schools. Nor is it the first time he’s used executive orders to intrude in key decisions about school openings and closings—although, perversely, in the previous instance that I know best, he did so to remove local discretion.
Gayles initially stuck to his guns, insisting that he was right and Hogan wrong, and he was backed by County Executive Marc Elrich. Confusion reigned until, probably to avoid litigation, the county officials backed down. Gayles didn’t change his view, however, stating in the latest Health Department directive that “I continue to strongly believe that…it is neither safe nor in the interest of public health for any school to return for in-person learning this fall.”
All this fuss might just be the intergovernmental version of bull elephant seals fighting over their harems. But as with all school reopening decisions, politics and adult interests are also at play. Montgomery County’s current executive is a famously liberal Democrat who is close—to put it gently—to the big public-employee unions, most definitely including the county’s omnipresent teachers union, and he almost always does their bidding, no matter how fiscally irresponsible that often turns out to be. Even the famously liberal county council has occasionally had to reject (or trim) his over-generous pandering with tax dollars.
Larry Hogan, though no conservative, is a Republican, and on the handful of occasions when he’s pushed for some education reform or initiative, he’s nearly always been reversed by the powerful Maryland State Education Association and its allies, including a veto-proof Democratic majority in both houses of the general assembly.
I would wager my high school diploma that the Montgomery County teachers union, having achieved its wish to keep the public schools virtual this fall (after having thrown much sand into the district’s efforts at online learning during the spring), and in the heat of a vexed negotiation over its next contract, whispered into Elrich’s receptive ears that it would be unfair to allow the private schools to open for business and thereby show them up. And I’d wager my college degree that the peeved private school parents who protested the county’s move to Hogan’s office fed gubernatorial suspicions that this school-closing order was again the handiwork of the union, its catspaw in the County Executive’s office, and its fellow travelers at the state level.
Why should you, who live elsewhere, care about any of these goings-on in my backyard? Because what’s been happening here is a microcosm of a national phenomenon. When Chicago Public Schools announced a few days back that its vast system would be all-virtual this fall, it was responding to a threatened strike by the city’s teachers union if it attempted to do otherwise. The same thing happened in Los Angeles a few weeks earlier. In New York, Governor Cuomo has said that schools may reopen, and Mayor de Blasio wants them to open, but the state’s and city’s mighty teachers unions are far from convinced, and while strikes aren’t allowed in New York, there are all sorts of other ways the unions and their members can manage to keep schools closed. New Mexico’s Democratic governor has decreed that private schools in the Land of Enchantment must abide by rules for close-contact businesses. The Florida Teachers Association has gone to court to invalidate the governor’s school-reopening order. And the American Federation of Teachers has said it’s fine with “safety strikes” if local teachers don’t think enough has been done to safeguard their health.
“School-opening Extortion” the Wall Street Journal termed it in a scathing editorial. “Rather than work to open schools safely,” quoth the editorialists, “the unions are issuing ultimatums and threatening strikes until granted their ideological wish list.” That includes not opening public schools physically, paying teachers and other school personnel extra to work during the pandemic, and keeping charter and private schools closed, too, lest the competition look more appealing to parents, politicians, and possibly teachers themselves. This is happening most conspicuously in blue states far beyond Maryland. Reports the Journal:
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has said that if public schools are remote-only, private schools must be too. In Milwaukee, private schools planning to reopen were blindsided by a state order that no schools can do so until the city meets certain benchmarks. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has laid out new guidelines that will prevent private and public schools from reopening until the state declares they can.
Never to waste a crisis—whether that maxim is properly attributed to Rahm Emmanuel, Winston Churchill, Saul Alinsky or M.F. Weiner—is a lesson that America’s teacher unions have internalized, and the Covid-19 pandemic has created for them a remarkable opportunity to throw their weight around in pursuit of a multi-part agenda: more money, less work, less competition, less testing, less accountability, and while they’re at it, help elect candidates in November (national, state, and local) who will adhere to that agenda long after the hoped-for vaccine is in widespread use. The draft Democratic platform, for example, would clamp down on charter schools and end “high-stakes testing.”
Sure, school teachers, like everyone else considering going back to work, have legitimate health concerns. Almost one in five of them are fifty-five or older, and a number of others have underlying conditions. Maybe a quarter to a third of them have cause for heightened concern about the potential consequences of acquiring the coronavirus. So do plenty of other school employees—bus drivers, school secretaries, custodians, cafeteria workers and more. Understood. That’s why competent schools and school systems that are reopening are taking extra precautions not only with their physical set-up, but also with their staffing plans. So, of course, is every conscientious entity that is asking its employees to return to the workplace. These decisions aren’t easy, and in many places, they’re still very much in flux.
Teachers’ legitimate interest in risk-mitigation in the workplace does not, however, extend to shutting down other people’s schools, slapping new constraints onto private and charter schools, downplaying the learning losses faced by their own pupils, squelching school choice, and doing away with results-based accountability. Not in Chicago, not in Los Angeles, not in Albuquerque, not in my backyard—and not in yours.
As of spring 2019, sixteen states have enacted laws requiring schools to hold back students when they fail to read proficiently by the end of third grade. The goal of these “reading guarantees” (as Ohio puts it) is praiseworthy: to ensure that all children have the foundational reading skills needed to navigate more challenging material.
The effect of these policies on retained students is usually the focus of debate and scholarly research. What’s less acknowledged, however, is that these policies also encourage schools to center attention on literacy before retention can actually occur. The threat of retention is supposed to spur broader improvements among third graders, as well. But does it?
A new study from the Manhattan Institute examines if third grade students, whether retained or not, benefit from Florida and Arizona’s reading guarantee policies. Marcus Winters of Boston University—a longtime evaluator of the Florida program—and Paul Perrault of the (Florida- and Arizona-based) Helios Institute conducted the analysis. They employ a difference-in-difference statistical method that compares schools’ third grade state test score trajectories to those in other grades. The basic idea is that third graders might see a bump as the literacy policies were implemented, but students in fourth or fifth grade wouldn’t. The study looks at results from the first year of implementation in both states (Florida in 2002–03 and Arizona in 2013–14).
Winters and Perrault uncover positive impacts in both states. In Florida, third graders’ test scores increased by an estimated 2.7 and 3.3 scale-score points on state reading and math exams, respectively, compared to their counterparts in fourth and fifth grade. Similar results emerge from Arizona, with third graders enjoying an increase of 2.4 scale-score points in reading and 5.2 points in math. These results are statistically significant and the analysts characterize the magnitude of the test-score impacts as “medium.” The slightly larger impacts in math are somewhat surprising, but the authors don’t speculate on potential explanations. Unfortunately, for methodological reasons, the analysts are unable to track the impacts of the early literacy policies beyond one year of implementation. Last, in a supplemental analysis of scores from Hillsborough County (FL), the researchers find that students across the achievement spectrum—not just low achievers—benefitted from the state’s literacy initiative.
By including a retention component, states’ early literacy initiatives help to ensure that struggling readers receive necessary time and supports. Analyses of Florida’s retention policy find a short-term boost for retained students, though test-score effects seem to fade out over time. A study from Chicago likewise finds a short-term increase in achievement among third graders who were retained. It’s not a silver bullet—educational interventions rarely are—but studies indicate that a retention-based policy can give struggling young readers a leg up when compared to similar achieving peers who are promoted.
Yet early literacy policies also seek to improve student outcomes more broadly, even among those who aren’t actually retained. While retention receives most of the spotlight, let’s not neglect the potential for wider benefits when schools are encouraged to improve literacy instruction across-the-board.
Source: Paul Perrault and Marcus A. Winters, Test-Based Promotion and Student Performance in Florida and Arizona, Manhattan Institute (2020).
Research on education during the coronavirus pandemic has been robust. Much of it is table setting for longer-term analysis on virtual curricula, teaching effectiveness, and student achievement. But there is also important ephemera being studied that will form a more immediate image of a difficult and chaotic time. A recent report from the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice (REACH) at Tulane University will form part of that image.
For this study, researchers combed the websites of a representative sample of 3,511traditional public schools (TPS), charter schools, and private schools nationwide looking to see how and how quickly each type of school responded to pandemic-mitigation shutdowns between early March and early June of this year. Their goal was to describe the extent to which schools provided personalized and engaging instruction and a wide range of services in the immediate aftermath of closure, ranking each area to calculate the breadth and depth of response. Thus they retrieved information on the details of instructional activities provided; types of activities presented outside of class; attendance, grading, and progress monitoring; breadth of service (meal provision, counseling services, and the like); and supports provided for students with special needs, English language learners, and students without internet access or compatible devices. Researchers gave their ratings added weight for personalization and engagement if instructional activities were conducted live/synchronous via video-based communication and if student participation was required rather than optional. The highest score a school could achieve was 50 points. The highest score observed was 35.1, and the national average was a disappointing 9 points. The vast majority of schools in the study earned a downright dismal score between 0 and 5 points.
The findings indicate that, rather than a broad response, schools stuck to one or two basic areas, the most common of which was providing academic instruction. Facilitating internet access and providing compatible devices to students was also a high priority. However, the focus seems to have been on general education students, with less service provided to students with disabilities and English language learners. Only 37 percent of schools even referenced a plan for students with disabilities on their websites; and just 17 percent of schools mentioned English language learners. Progress monitoring, likewise, was absent from a majority of school and district websites.
Traditional public schools scored the highest marks in terms of providing services to disadvantaged students, while charter schools scored higher in terms of engagement outside of class and on progress monitoring. Private schools switched to remote learning a few days earlier than TPS or charters, on average, but did not outperform them by a statistically significant margin in any category. TPS eventually caught up with the early-pivot schools on most measures. Researchers found no observable differences between standalone charters and those operating under management organizations.
Midwestern states tended to have the most comprehensive responses to closure, while Southern states tended to have the least comprehensive. These differences hold true even after accounting for income, parent education, and other differences across states. Urban schools had somewhat more extensive responses than non-urban schools. The strongest predictor of how comprehensively schools responded was the education level of parents and other adults in the neighborhood around the schools. Neighborhood internet access was also a strong predictor of school responses. School leaders were unlikely to implement live classes if they knew their students could not access them. Likewise, schools in neighborhoods with greater internet access had likely been using online tools more prior to the crisis and were therefore better prepared to increase their use when needed. That said, 73 percent of school websites that included any Covid-19 plan mentioned at least one online tool that students were expected to use. Google Classroom was the most common, followed by Zoom and similar video conferencing services. Tutorial tools such as Khan Academy were commonly referenced, although no single tool was dominant. Class Dojo, which can be used to communicate with parents and reward children with points for good behavior was used by 9 percent of schools.
These transient details of the chaotic end to the 2019–2020 school year are important to document. Many schools and districts are already mounting the 2020–2021 school year treadmill with barely a breath in between. Huge quality and equity gaps in education existed before coronavirus closures, and these findings mainly spotlight portions of the pre-existing picture. The true panorama will not become clear until we see if the short-term trouble leads to long-term fixes.
SOURCE: Douglas N. Harris, et. al., “How America’s Schools Responded to the COVID Crisis,” National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice (July 2020).
On this week’s podcast, Erin Einhorn, a national reporter for NBC News, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to talk about her recent piece on outdoor classrooms. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines how online classes have affected high schools’ curricular options.
Amber's Research Minute
Cassandra M.D. Hart, Brian Jacob, and Susanna Loeb, “Online Course-Taking and Expansion of Curricular Options in High Schools,” retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University (August 2020).