The financial fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic is part of a triple threat facing schools this fall: (1) students who are far off track academically and socially; (2) a decline in state revenue that will result in severe budget cuts; and (3) rising costs in response to the pandemic. The silver lining is that the financial pressure could provide cover to enterprising leaders interested in tackling thorny issues like pension obligations that might otherwise have gone unaddressed.
Before the Colorado legislature suspended its work last month amid the widening pandemic, Governor Jared Polis had been pushing an historic expansion of the state’s preschool program. This was coming on the heels of a broader focus on early childhood and the fulfillment of a key campaign promise a year ago: making free, full-day kindergarten a reality. Buoyed by strong revenues, that was then. Now in the time of virus, anything with a price tag is on the chopping block, including Colorado’s preschool expansion, which is dead in the water.
The financial fallout states must deal with is part of a triple threat facing schools this fall: (1) students who are far off track academically and socially; (2) a decline in state revenue that will result in severe budget cuts; and (3) rising costs in response to the pandemic. Needless to say, the cost-saving measures states will soon have to undertake won’t be pleasant. For example, as recently as February, Tennessee had planned a 4 percent pay raise for teachers and a $250 million mental health fund for schools. After the crisis emerged, the latter was eliminated and the proposed pay increase cut in half. Similarly, teachers in Indiana had the wind at their backs in pressing for more funding and higher pay before the coronavirus broke out. Now, the momentum has completely evaporated.
The silver lining—to the extent there can be one as schools and districts grapple with the immediate needs of their students and families—is that the financial pressure soon to be exerted upon America’s public education system could provide cover to enterprising leaders interested in tackling thorny issues (e.g., pension obligations) that might otherwise have gone unaddressed. Collectively, thanks to ESSA’s requirement that school-level financial information be tabulated and released to the public, we’ll also have the added insight of being able to assess the financial impact of these budget cuts by school. That’s about it though. There will be some differences around the edges, but schools are about to get punched in the mouth, and it remains unclear how far the feds will go to help cushion the blow.
Indeed, only a sliver of the recent $2.2 trillion CARES Act package was dedicated to education. The last big federal stimulus, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, was small by comparison, but it included much more money for schools to cope with the Great Recession. For this reason, there are a number of proposals circulating for more state stimulus. Education groups have asked for upwards of $200 billion in new aid, and governors have called on the federal government to allocate $500 billion. For sure, there’s a possibility that Uncle Sam will come to the rescue, though Congress is more focused for the time being on ratcheting up much-needed aid to small businesses and hospitals.
Because state revenue projections are still in flux (e.g., jobless claims continue to skyrocket), getting a good hold of all of this is akin to looking at a mountain through a keyhole. Through their peering and prying, Marguerite Roza and her team at the Edunomics lab have been reporting their findings on the ever-changing financial outlook via a series of webinars. While the magnitude of the impact upon schools is still unclear, we can glean insights from how states have previously responded when hurried state cuts were required (e.g., after the Great Recession). According to Roza, states typically follow a three-stage process.
The first is a “warning” stage. This is largely where states are now as many are signaling the need for broad budget cuts and walking back promised allocations. Case in point, Governor David Ige in Hawaii has proposed cutting salaries for teachers by 20 percent. Nothing is in writing at this point, and no decisions have yet been made, but the message being sent is loud and clear. States like Hawaii that are heavily dependent on sales tax or income tax revenue will see similar calls for deep cuts, as will states like Alaska that are more reliant on fossil fuel production.
The second is a “perimeter trimming” stage. Some states have started taking aim at recently added initiatives and programs, like pre-K and teacher pay as described previously. To wit, the director of Washington’s Office of Financial Management explained the recent nixing of a plan to hire 370 school guidance counselors, among other budget items, by saying, “At a time when we may have to be cutting billions out of the next budget, saving $400 million gives you $400 million. And two, you haven’t started something that you then have to cut.” Anything outside a state’s basic funding formula (e.g., CTE, afterschool) could be in jeopardy, though virtual learning—customarily in this bucket—will probably be protected as the national emergency continues to force schools online.
The third stage is where states turn to basic funding cuts (i.e., a state decides to fund only a portion of their basic formula). Keep an eye out for legislatures to reconvene for special sessions this summer to make some hard decisions. Incidentally, Utah just called for one last week in what could be the first in a series of special sessions in the Beehive State. NCSL has a bird’s-eye view (here and here) of how COVID-19 has impacted this year’s legislative sessions.
Longer term, states may consider looking at formula changes, though the political landscape for doing so was already difficult enough while the economy was surging. Relics of the past, state funding formulas are twenty years old on average (over fifty in Nevada!), and in my home state of Colorado, our twenty-five-year-old jalopy literally directs more state funding to wealthier school districts in a reverse Robin Hood effect. Debating the need to update it is a perennial event that shows no signs of abating, virus be damned.
Taken together, it’s a bleak picture made worse by the manner in which school districts typically budget as if they were insulated from economic shifts. Roza observes that, to districts’ detriment, they are often caught flat-footed during a downturn because of statutory and contractual obligations. From step-and-lane pay to seniority-based layoffs, inertia and existing processes, rather than strategy and priorities, will drive the impending labor reductions in many districts across the country.
Late last month, a remarkable article appeared in AJPM, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, cautioning that a person’s ACE score is a “relatively crude measure of cumulative childhood stress exposure that can vary widely from person to person.” ACE stands for “Adverse Childhood Experience”; your “ACE score” indicates the number of adversities you faced as a child, such as growing up around substance abuse or mental illness, witnessing domestic violence, or divorce. Your score grows higher if you suffered emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, or parental neglect. Type “find your ACE score” on Google and you will find literally thousands of links to online quizzes, such as this one from NPR.
The source of all this was a landmark 1998 study conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control, which looked at the long-term health outcomes of more than 17,000 patients and surfaced the links between ACEs and a broad range of mental and physical health problems. Adults with four or more ACES were found far more likely to suffer from depression or attempted suicide, for example. ACEs have a strong relationship to mental illness, addiction, domestic violence, and chronic illnesses. Crime and mass incarceration, homelessness, and early death were all correlated to childhood adversity.
Two decades later, that study has been cited more than 32,000 times in more 150 different academic journals across disciplines, including criminal justice, public health, medicine, psychiatry, and many more. In education circles, much has been made of how adverse childhood experiences often result in social, emotional, and cognitive impairments, as well as the inter-generational nature of childhood stressors: Parents who must contend with their own levels of stress are more likely to engage in behaviors that drive up their children’s ACE scores, perpetuating the cycle.
Largely overlooked as schools and teachers moved into crisis footing in the wake of virus-driven school closings and scrambled to put “remote learning” plans in place, the AJPM paper published last month sounds important cautions—particularly since it comes from some of the same researchers who published the original 1998 study, the source of so much of education’s recent focus “trauma-informed” schools, classrooms, and pedagogy.
“Unlike recognized public health screening measures, such as blood pressure or lipid levels that use measurement reference standards and cut points or thresholds for clinical decision making,” the authors cautioned, “the ACE score is not a standardized measure of childhood exposure to the biology of stress.” They pronounced themselves “concerned that ACE scores are being misappropriated as a screening or diagnostic tool…to infer individual client risk.” The AJPM paper is not aimed at educators, but its pointed critique of ACEs screening seems particularly relevant to education. ACE scores, the authors suggest, are misused when applied to individuals, but more correctly useful when discussing effects across populations.
I reached out unsuccessfully for comment to one of the authors of last month’s paper, Dr. Robert F. Anda, who was a co-principal investigator of the 1998 study. In a twenty-minute video posted earlier this month on YouTube, which has been viewed only a handful of times, Anda presents to an unidentified group discussing how assigning risk and making clinical decisions for individuals based on their ACE score is a “misapplication” of his study’s findings.
Interestingly, he describes his creation of the ACE score questionnaire as “a teaching tool” developed for professional audiences. “It went out on the internet,” he quips, where it’s been adapted for uses it was never intended for. For example, Anda notes, the questions commonly used to measure ACEs cannot adequately assess the frequency or intensity of an adverse experience. “How many times did these adversities happen, the intensity of that experience, how intense was the adversity when it occurred? Was it chronic?” he asks. “Or did it happen day after day, week after week or month after month?” Anda, clearly a careful scientist, also points out there are gender differences in the impact of certain adversities and variations in how adverse experiences affect brain structure and function at different ages. Neither is a score of four or more ACEs, as some have suggested, a “magic number” given individual variability in stress responses, he explains. “If it’s a crude measure,” he cautions, “it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve had the same biologic exposure to stress.”
Another misuse of ACE scores seems particularly relevant to education: the risk of stigmatizing a population. A common data point in teacher professional development is that nearly half of all children have experienced childhood trauma. It’s a mathematical certainty given the nuance-averse ways ACE scores are enumerated that in low-SES communities the rate would be much higher, comprising nearly every child in a high-poverty school. As well-intended notions of “trauma-informed education” spread and take root, there is an obvious risk of viewing entire classrooms as stocked with children traumatized by definition, disregarding both issues of intensity and resilience, with the risk of lowering standards and expectations—an outcome foreseen by those who have cautioned against “therapeutic education.” The danger, as described by U.K. teacher and author David Didau, is that “it leads us to label certain families—particularly working class families—as unable to deal with children’s emotions and invites schools to intrude ever further into children’s lives.”
Anda was not speaking about education and its application of ACE scores, but he sounded a similar note of caution. “If you overestimate risk, you may refer people to treatment and services that they don’t need that not only may waste their time but may have some risk involved.”
In the days before COVID-19 brought American education to a standstill, a burgeoning industry was offering training on “trauma-informed” pedagogy and classrooms, largely informed by the work of Anda and his colleagues. It’s predictable that this will return with a vengeance once schooling returns to normal, with even broader claims being made about the “trauma” inflicted upon children separated from extended family and friends under quarantine. Careful practitioners will want to be mindful of the important cautions raised by Anda and his colleagues and ask informed questions if and when we are encouraged to view individual students through the lens of their ACE score.
Abby Thernstrom wasn’t a close friend, but she was a lot more than a cordial acquaintance. For as many decades as I can remember, she was both a force to be reckoned with in education and civil rights policy and a treasured colleague in pursuit of excellence and integrity in both realms.
As rigorous a thinker as I’ve ever known, she was a first-rate analyst, data hound, and clear-eyed analyst. Along with her partner/husband/co-author, the distinguished historian Stephan Thernstrom, her most notable works include America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible and No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, as well as innumerable articles, op-eds, and more. Yet Abby was far more than a desk-bound scribbler, whether one recalls her decade-plus service on the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education during the formative period of the “Massachusetts miracle” in K–12 schooling, her dozen active years on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, or the thousand panels and events she took part in.
Among the many honors she received (and often shared with Steve) during her lifetime was the Fordham Prize for Excellence in Education (!) and the Bradley Prize. Although a loving mother, passionate grandmother, and dear friend to many, Abby had a tough-minded, suffer-no-fools rigor to her that she applied with equal force to folly wherever encountered. Ultimately known as a neo-con, she was as rigorous toward foolishness on the right as on the left, where I think it’s fair to say she more often found it.
She allowed absolutely “no excuses” for the shortcomings of American K–12 education, for which her prescription was a careful blend of tough love, high expectations, fairness, and color-blindness. But she and Steve made clear that the challenge went beyond schooling and into the culture itself. Today, sadly, we’re more willing to tolerate excuses—and that’s a problem.
Jason Riley got it exactly right: “Abby wasn’t the shy type. She understood that you don’t help people by lying to them about their predicament or urging them to blame their problems on others. She made a career of doing something that ought to be common among public intellectuals but isn’t: gathering facts and reporting her findings without bias and based on the evidence. Neither ideological nor doctrinaire, she acted in the tradition of social scientists like Edward Banfield and James Q. Wilson, who put intellectual honesty ahead of political correctness.”
Even as we celebrate her life and mourn her passing, we can only hope that this mold isn’t permanently shattered.
Achieve did something almost no respected nonprofit in my experience has ever pulled off with similar grace and style: It decided, after more than two decades of outstanding work, helmed first by Bob Schwartz and then by Mike Cohen, to close its own doors while ensuring that its considerable intellectual property and many projects and causes will be well looked after.
That doesn’t mean it won’t be missed. I personally and Fordham institutionally have had innumerable connections with Achieve and its leaders over the years. They’ve all been mutually respectful and supportive, cordial, and occasionally playful. About 95 percent of the time we’ve pulled in the same direction, sometimes formally teamed up, as in the American Diploma Project, but more often we collaborated within a looser structure of like-minded organizations, mostly in pursuit of higher K–12 standards attached to college and career readiness.
We didn’t invariably agree. For instance, our reviewers didn’t love the Next Generation Science Standards, which Achieve incubated. Mike Cohen labored long and hard and well for the Clinton administration, while I did the same for Reagan and Mike Petrilli did for Bush 43. But the Achieve-Fordham connections were a classic—now too rare—example of center-left/center-right bipartisanship, combined with easy personal camaraderie. (Another example: Mike Cohen serves on the “practitioner council” of the Hoover Education Success Initiative, with which I’m connected.)
Achieve’s—and Mike Cohen’s—legacy is huge. College Board president David Coleman has nicely summarized it, as well as the challenges that remain:
Achieve believed that education must never be isolated but fully embraced by the business and political worlds. Achieve at its strongest actively engaged CEO’s, governors, and superintendents in the work of education. Mike moved between all of these worlds to build Achieve as an essential force…
So many of us in this field owe a debt to Achieve, Mike Cohen, and the circle of leaders they have cultivated. So many of us became friends at gatherings that crossed state lines in a shared commitment. Let us now be vigilant to strengthen the bonds across sectors and states. Let’s work for ideas and ideals better than partisanship. Let’s especially hold fast to the best of Achieve’s ideas: that students will rise if challenged meaningfully. Let us rise to the challenges of our divided landscape to find insights and actions that may unite us still.
We certainly haven’t seen the last of Mike Cohen, and that’s a very good thing. His wisdom, his wit, his kindness and generosity, his energy and determination that American education must and can be better than it is—we still need that. But what a splendid job he has already done!
The evidence is mixed on whether we can motivate students to work harder by offering them financial incentives. California instituted a program as part of a group of demonstration projects across the country to determine if performance-based scholarships could be used to boost the quality and quantity of high school seniors’ academic effort. A recent study published in the journal Education Finance and Policy examines whether larger and longer scholarship payments impact how students choose to spend their time after they are enrolled in college.
Analysts Lisa Barrow and Cecilia Elena Rouse use data from the California Performance-Based Scholarship Demonstration (PBS) program. Participation in the program was not based on merit. The only requirements were that eligible students had to be high school seniors, meet the low-income eligibility standards, attend a Cash for College workshop where they got help with their FAFSA, submit their FAFSA to the federal government, and sign a consent form. Students completing these requirements were randomly assigned to multiple treatment groups with scholarships of differing durations and/or sizes, as well as a non-PBS condition (control group). Specifically, the scholarship incentive varied in length from one to four semesters and in size from $1,000 to $4,000. Additionally, some scholarship incentives included a performance requirement (students had to earn a grade of C or better in at least six credits). Treatment students received their scholarship directly while they were still seniors while the scholarships for control-group students were awarded directly to their colleges after enrollment ($1,000). Participants also completed surveys about a bunch of academic and non-academic questions like how they spent their time, how they were motivated to learn or not, and what they thought of their academic abilities.
The key finding is the treatment group was 5.2 percentage points more likely than the control group to enroll at a post-secondary institution. Survey responses also show that members of the treatment group were 7.3 percentage points more likely to report having been prepared for class in the last seven days, 6.7 percentage points more likely to have attended all of their classes in the last week, and reported studying about eight minutes more per day than members of the control group. The early financial incentives induced students to devote more time and effort to educational activities, and they self-reported spending less time on leisure activities (or “nights out for fun”).
Analysts also find that the scholarship program primarily affects behavior in the semester(s) in which the student is eligible for the funds. Incentives do not generate impacts after eligibility ends, nor do they increase students’ reported interest or enjoyment in learning. But there are also no negative impacts once the incentive is removed, nor is there lasting change in behavior as a result of prior eligibility for the scholarship. The data also provide some evidence that students whose incentives included a performance component (i.e., maintaining a C) were more motivated by that goal than they would be by a simple monetary award with no strings attached. Moreover, another study using the same data by MDRC tracked the students for longer and found that treatment students were more likely to matriculate, and that these gains were largely concentrated in community colleges and for students with lower high school GPAs.
Is such an incentive program a worthy use of scarce public funds? This study reveals that the timing and strings attached to the incentive matter. Analysts found that larger incentive amounts did not generate larger increases in effort. Perhaps that’s because the differences between lower and higher amounts were not sizeable enough to generate additional effort, but it is equally likely that it just doesn’t take much to encourage students to put in more effort. A reasonably-priced incentive such as this one—timed just as students are seeing the light at the end of the high school tunnel—could make a noticeable difference.
SOURCE: Lisa Barrow and Cecilia Elena Rouse, “Financial Incentives and Educational Investment: The Impact of Performance-Based Scholarships on Student Time Use,” Education Finance and Policy (September 2018).
Over the past decade, childhood diagnoses of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have risen by 41 percent. ADHD is the most common neurobehavioral disorder seen in U.S. children, with up to 6.4 million kids ages four to seventeen—nearly 11 percent of all American children in that age range—having been diagnosed. Most of those children are referred for diagnosis by their schools due to behaviors observed in classrooms. Previous research provides conflicting information regarding the positive and negative outcomes of ADHD diagnoses. Some studies suggest that increased scrutiny and impatience in class faced by students diagnosed with ADHD may mitigate some of the benefits shown by medication treatment in alleviating previously-observed behaviors. A new study by sociologist Jayanti Owens of Brown University posits that the severity of ADHD-related behaviors observed pre-diagnosis might hold a clue to clearing up the conflicting information.
Owens’s data come from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort of 1998–1999 (ECLS-K) collected by the National Center for Education Statistics. While they are decades old at this point, the ECLS-K data are rich in detail and provide access to multiple behavioral reports which, while not exactly the same in their criteria of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, do correlate strongly with modern ADHD screener tests. It should be noted that these are in-class behaviors—both pre- and post-diagnosis—reported by teachers. The data also include the diagnosis and treatment information for a number of childhood disorders including ADHD.
To be included in the study, children needed to be present in all six annual ECLS-K study cohorts from kindergarten through fifth grade (1998–2003). The final sample includes 9,260 fifth graders, representing a 77 percent retention rate from the initial kindergarten cohort. Due to attrition, the final sample is not nationally representative. The children in the study are more likely to be white, have mothers with slightly higher educational levels, and have slightly lower inattentive behavior scores at baseline. However, the fifth-grade sample is not significantly different from the baseline sample in their kindergarten achievement scores or hyperactive/impulsive behaviors scores.
Since the behavior reports were scale-scored, Owens was able to create two groups of students—those with mild or severe behaviors—and to compare students just above and just below the dividing line. She undertakes two analyses, first comparing diagnosed and otherwise comparable undiagnosed children; second, she compares diagnosed children who are medicated to those who are unmedicated.
Now for the findings. Generally, medication appears to have consistently large and significant benefits—namely, reduced ADHD-related behaviors reported for students in fifth grade—but only for children with more severe reported behaviors prior to diagnosis. However, diagnosed and medicated children who had less severe prediagnosis behaviors fare nearly the same as diagnosed and unmedicated children with more severe prediagnosis problems. Moreover, they fare significantly worse than diagnosed and medicated children who had more severe prediagnosis behavior problems. In other words, medicated children with mild ADHD-related behaviors pre-diagnosis see worse behavior reports after diagnosis and treatment. There is far more at play than simply behavior and medical mitigation. This research points to a tangle of implicated social, psychological, and medical processes, including those that are potentially positive (e.g., medication) and potentially negative (e.g., social labeling). And the non-nationally-representative sample may actually play a part.
In an interview published in Hechinger regarding this study, Owens explains: “[W]hen you have kids for whom it is not a clear-cut ADHD diagnosis… Oftentimes educated parents from high social class backgrounds assume that more services for their kids are better than fewer services. And in those subsets of instances, where it’s not a clear-cut diagnosis, this research is showing is that the stigma of being labeled as ADHD can outweigh the benefits of the services.”
Medical research in recent years has pointed to both under- and overdiagnosis of ADHD in children. Perhaps this new data, examined at the intersection of education and ADHD, can help untangle the various conflicting and tangled threads.
SOURCE: Jayanti Owens, “Relationships between an ADHD Diagnosis and Future School Behaviors among Children with Mild Behavioral Problems,” Sociology of Education (March 2020).
On this week’s podcast, Mike Petrilli, Robert Pondiscio, and David Griffith debate how much we can expect districts to do during the current crisis, whether student work should be graded right now, and if schools will return to normal in the fall. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines the wide variation of substitute teaching across the country.
Amber's Research Minute
Jing Liu, Susanna Loeb, and Ying Shi, “More Than Shortages: The Unequal Distribution of Substitute Teaching,” retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University (April 2020).