Editor’s note: This is the third 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 third 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 two posts here and here.
Last week I (re)stated the case for adding a year to elementary school, now and forever. That’s both because, even pre-Covid-19, we hadn’t succeeded in getting most kids to grade level standards before entering middle school, and post-Covid learning loss is going to make matters much worse. I fervently hope that states give the green light for at least a handful of schools to try this experiment in extended learning time.
But even if that is a bridge too far for most schools, there’s no getting around the particular education challenges facing today’s five-year-olds, what we might call the Covid Kindergarten cohort, especially in districts whose schools have been shut tight all year and are likely to stay that way.
The parents of these kids faced two terrible options back in the fall: either enroll their children in “remote kindergarten”—a poor simulacrum of the real thing—or “redshirt” them and keep them out of kindergarten entirely.
We don’t have perfect data, but according to an NPR survey, about one in six parents did the latter; about 16 percent of kindergarten-age students were not enrolled in school this past fall and presumably are not today. If we return to business as usual and simply keep kids on the normal age-based grade-level-progression conveyor belt, that means the current kindergarten cohort (the high school graduating class of 2033) will always be about 16 percent smaller than others, and next year’s kindergarten cohort (the class of 2034) will always be about 16 percent bigger.
So what’s the problem? Surely schools can add or subtract classrooms, or expand or shrink class sizes, like they always have. That’s true, but there are still major concerns that we shouldn’t sweep under the rug:
- Children who are doing remote kindergarten this year are surely missing some important skills and milestones (like learning how to behave at school!) and will therefore be heading into first grade even further behind than normal. Without extra help, they could end up struggling (academically, socially, and emotionally) for their entire schooling experience—punished, in effect, because their parents didn’t redshirt them.
- Children who were red-shirted will enjoy the benefit of entering kindergarten a year older than normal—making it more likely that they will be ready for grade-level material (if traumatized by the plague year). But that extra maturity can cut both ways. Some of those kids are going to be ready to be challenged beyond the kindergarten curriculum, and will be bored if they are not.
- Meanwhile, many of next year’s “normal age” kindergarteners will have missed out on preschool, making them even less kindergarten-ready than usual. Which is a huge challenge, given the low rates of kindergarten readiness even in the pre-Covid-19 world.
Put that all together and it means that we will have a group of kids—about 8 million four- and five-year-olds—entering post-Covid schooling with an unusually wide range of readiness levels. If there was ever a case for allowing students to move at their own pace, this situation must be it.
One option is for schools to adapt my plan from last week—adding a “grade 2.5” forever—but use that strategy for just a few years. Here’s how it might work in a given district:
- Make a commitment to adding an extra grade level between second and third grade for this year’s kindergarten class, and next year’s. That means in the 2023–24 and 2024–25 school years.
- This summer, work with early elementary teachers to adjust the scope-and sequence of the district’s core curriculum to spread out learning objectives for grades K–2 over four years instead of three.
- Implement that slower pace of instruction starting in kindergarten and first grade in 2021–22, then first and second grades in 2022–23, and grades 2 and 2.5 in 2023–24, to ensure that students master critical knowledge and skills.
- Make grade 2.5 the “default,” so that no student feels stigmatized for following that grade-level progression. There should be no talk of them being “held back” because that’s not what’s happening. They are being given an extra year to make up for the year lost to Covid-19.
- But do make sure that students who are ready to progress faster are able to do so, skipping grade 2.5 if they are ready for grade three.
In some ways, adding an extra grade for just a few years will create greater logistical challenges than doing it forever. That’s because it will create a few bizarrely sized cohorts that schools up and down the system will have to cope with. The high school graduating class of 2033, today’s kindergarteners, will be tiny, given that most of its students will do grade 2.5, slowing them down a year. And the high school graduating class of 2035 will be huge, given that it will include most of next year’s kindergarten cohort, who will get an extra grade level of elementary schooling, and all of the cohort after that (who will not). On the upside, this sort of experiment will cost a lot less money than adding an extra grade level till the end of time.
As crazy as this idea sounds, it still maintains our age-old commitment to “grade levels.” In coming weeks we’ll look at how we might get away from such shackles and create a system that truly gives each individual child of the Covid Generation what he or she needs.
From the start of the pandemic, I’ve resisted talk of the “new normal” in education for two reasons. First and most importantly, there’s an unquenchable thirst for the old normal, and increasingly so as disruptions to traditional patterns of schooling approach the twelve-month mark. Moreover, much of the new normal talk has been driven by advocates who see an opportunity to advance the ideas, models, and pet projects they promoted long before “Covid” entered our vocabulary. To a hammer, as they say...
To be sure, a significant number of families have seized the moment to take charge of their children’s education in ways that would have been unthinkable absent coronavirus, and we should be grateful for their efforts: forming “pandemic pods,” enrolling in micro-schools, embracing homeschooling, and other untraditional options. Some of that will stick, and that’s a good thing. We can only benefit and learn from the creativity and dynamism of those not content to sit around and wait while their children’s education is placed on life support. But for most of us, the act of sending our kids to a school alongside other youngsters in the community is not a make-do solution until something better comes along. It’s a cultural habit that’s persisted over generations because we value it. That traditional schooling could function more effectively is inarguable. That doesn’t diminish our attachment to it or the desire to return to it.
Now that the end of the crisis is closer than the beginning, attention can turn to getting kids back on track and recovering lost momentum, and perhaps being better prepared for the next disruptive event. With respect to my Fordham colleague Mike Petrilli, this is not the time to “think big” or lay out grand plans that even further disrupt the basic structures of schooling. The pandemic has not revealed deep wells of untapped capacity or competence in our K–12 education system seeking redeployment. Thus, any plan that increases complexity or makes teachers’ jobs harder, in my view, is a non-starter. Neither is this an “opportunity” for “disrupting” schooling. We’ve been conducting a natural experiment in disrupting education for nearly a year now. The goal now should be to end it, not extend it.
For starters, it’s time to stop wringing our hands over “learning loss.” Decisions were made starting last March to prioritize public health over educational outcomes. We knew—or should have known—that learning loss would occur. It was a deliberate choice that we now must live with and recover from. If you were among those insisting (or continuing to insist) that in-person learning is not safe, or demanding that schools simply must find a way to improve remote or hybrid learning, kindly take a seat.
Let’s also tap the brakes before we bash districts, schools, and teachers for making suboptimal instructional decisions under duress. But it’s important to commit to weaning ourselves off strategies pursued in haste before they become bad habits. The most obvious example, and too little discussed, is the explosion in the number of students placed on asynchronous virtual learning platforms such as Edgenuity, Edmentum (and its subsidiaries), Florida Virtual School, and other providers of online courseware and learning infrastructure.
The limited available data hint at the extent to which districts have relied on these programs during virtual instruction. Florida Virtual School, which also sells courses to schools outside of the state, reports enrollment for its individual course offerings has shot up by 54 percent. Another provider, Apex Learning, had doubled its enrollments by March. All of these purchases come with a price. The Oklahoma State Department of Education spent $2.6 million so that all districts would have access to the Edmentum product Exact Path, an online assessment and instruction tool. Similar purchases have been made at the district level. Ohio’s Columbus City Schools, to cite one example, entered into a $1.8 million contract with Edgenuity back in August.
I’ve spoken with several state education officials in the past month who privately express major misgivings over districts putting kids on these platforms and using state dollars to do so. One state leader who has advocated fiercely for the adoption and use of “high quality instructional materials” (HQIM) describes the dilemma of holding the line with local school districts that needed immediate solutions for remote learning but without placing additional demands on existing staff. “I can’t give you that through high quality instructional materials,” this official conceded, “because it’s the materials, coupled with skillful teaching, that gives you added benefit to students.”
I’ve made no secret over the years of my skepticism over “historic graduation rates” in U.S. schools unaccompanied by any concomitant evidence of gains in student achievement. Those gains are largely a function of online “credit recovery.” Covid-19 has quietly normalized the practices associated with credit recovery coursework—having students independently work through online content at their own pace with little or no guidance from an experienced educator—extending those practices to students who are not grateful for it, but resentful of it.
“Edgenuity is the definition of busywork. It consists of tedious tasks, videos you can’t skim through and mainstream assignments you can find the answers to online. It almost makes me want to mute the videos and work on something useful,” wrote one California high school student in her school newspaper. “This should be concerning and appalling to educators.” Parents have also discovered to their dismay that perfect scores can be earned on machine-graded assignments with incoherent word salads, as long as certain key words were included. This makes a gameable mockery of learning.
Remote and asynchronous learning has its uses. So too does “credit recovery” (unless we want boxcar numbers of kids denied high school diplomas to prove how tough we are on upholding standards). The risk is letting decisions made for the sake of expedience persist and become habits.
That’s a “new normal” that must be resisted.
Beware the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” President George W. Bush’s trenchant warning resonated across the political spectrum when he voiced it to the NAACP in 2000, and it has more or less driven federal education policy ever since. For many, educators and noneducators alike, it remains a touchstone of how to think about racial equity.
And yet, as seemingly transparent as the caution seems, it isn’t always easy to heed—isn’t always obvious how it applies to the real-world choices we face.
Consider CTE charters—schools of choice organized around helping students think about careers.
Once among the most disparaged forms of education in the U.S., career and technical education emerged in recent years as one of the most promising approaches to equipping students for the future.
For some educators, CTE is a means of preparing students to go directly from high school into the world of work or into postsecondary workforce education and training. For others, the rationale has more to do with engaging learners—young people who aren’t much motivated by academics but find that exploring a career or mastering a technical skill gives them reason to pay attention in class.
The last decade has seen much innovation in career education, yet most charter educators have kept their distance. Fixed on raising expectations among underserved students of color whose parents had not gone to college, charters have traditionally put priority on college access and academic success.
Many charter leaders saw education for careers as a throwback to the old dead-end vocational education, which was indeed once a dumping group for disadvantaged children. And encouraging charter schools to embrace CTE felt to many like renewed bigotry. “Don’t you dare,” a charter school leader once admonished me. “I’m educating students for Swarthmore and Harvard. Don’t you dare show up and tell them that the best they can do is be a welder or a nurse.”
But the evidence is mounting that career education improves student outcomes. A 2012 study of tenth graders found that CTE students scored higher on standardized tests, achieved higher GPAs, and showed more progress toward graduation than otherwise similar tenth graders. A 2015 study of dedicated CTE schools in Massachusetts found that their students were 23 percentage points more likely to graduate than similar students at nearby schools—and the effect was greatest among disadvantaged learners. A year later, in a study for the Fordham Institute, the same analyst found similar results in Arkansas.
A more recent study of CTE students who earn industry-recognized credentials in Florida, Indiana, and Kentucky found them more likely to graduate on time in all three states.
Bottom line: What may have once have looked to some like a second-rate option turns out to be a better choice for many students, whatever their race or ethnicity. Indeed, today the challenge may be reversed, as more white high school seniors are graduating with CTE credits than are their Black and Hispanic classmates. And contrary to thirty or forty years ago, these gaps are now seen as something to be rectified by enrolling more minority students in CTE programs.
Also in the last decade, a growing number of charter schools have focused on career education, adding or expanding technical instruction, cultivating employers who can offer internships, and developing courses that prepare students to earn industry certifications.
Data on CTE charters are skimpy, but anecdotal evidence abounds. A web scan by my organization surfaced some 200 charter schools nationwide adapting one or more career-focused instructional stratagems. And charters may be uniquely positioned to deliver on the promise of career education. They’re less rule-bound, nimbler, and often find it easier to partner with employers to create opportunities for work-based learning.
As career-focused schools of choice proliferate, many CTE educators have argued that they should be evaluated differently than other high schools, and charter authorizers, too, have struggled to avoid the soft bigotry of low expectations.
In addition to the usual, required academic subjects, CTE students must master a corpus of technical skills. Internships and other work-based learning opportunities add hours to the school day. Teachers routinely point out that CTE programs require more of students than traditional high school curricula, and many educators clamor for metrics appropriate to their mission.
“We’re experimenting, we’re innovating, we’re different,” one career-focused charter school leader complained to me. “The state’s funding and accountability systems aren’t designed for schools like ours.”
Research conducted by my organization, Opportunity America, before the pandemic found authorizers wrestling with this challenge—how to “right-size” standards for CTE charters without lowering expectations for academic attainment.
Some authorizers have been experimenting with new approaches. Among the most promising stratagems is not easing standards, but adding metrics more likely to capture the benefits of career education—metrics such as the number of students who earn industry-recognized credentials, the number who earn dual-enrollment credit, and the number who take advantage of internships or other work-based learning opportunities.
Covid-19 has put a brake on this experimentation for now, but many authorizers face new demands to reconsider traditional school performance metrics. These appeals come from across the charter world, often from advocates citing hardships imposed by the pandemic, particularly on low-income communities and families of color. This is a time for charter authorizers to “rebalance accountability and support,” one proponent argues, “deprioritizing” oversight and school evaluations.
But thorny questions remain: Just when does the soft bigotry of low expectations kick in? Where’s the line between an appropriate right-size standard and a deleterious lower standard?
The history of CTE charters offers a lesson that cuts both ways. Yes, it’s sometimes hard to make the right call, determining which option is in fact the less demanding path. And yes, mission matters. Sometimes different standards are appropriate. But the warning stands nevertheless—“Don’t you dare” still rings in my ears—and we ignore it at our peril.
For many years, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation (STBF) in Nebraska has provided full-ride college scholarships to eligible high school graduates in the state. This randomized study examines how such largesse affects higher education enrollment and degree completion. Conducted by economists from MIT and the National Bureau of Economic Research, it’s a timely and relevant study, considering President Biden’s promise of free community college for all and tuition-free public colleges and universities for families earning less than $125,000 a year.
Based on straightforward expectations of student merit and strict family income eligibility caps, the STBF scholarship program targets an economically-disadvantaged population deemed capable of college-level work. Recipients receive awards based on financial need per their FAFSA application, their high school GPA (it must be higher than 2.5), and the quality of their college essays. STBF awards are unusually comprehensive, paying college costs for up to five years at any Nebraska public four-year college and up to three years at any Nebraska two-year college. Awards are based on the tuition charged by the institutions—the higher the tuition, the larger the scholarship—and can encompass books, fees, room and board, personal expenses, and transportation. For example, scholarships awarded to attendees at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln during the study totaled $8,500 per year, even though the tuition and fees there amounted to approximately $8,000. Students must also maintain a 2.0 GPA in college each year to continue the scholarship.
Among applicants aiming to enroll between 2012 and 2016, a subset of awards was allocated by random assignment as follows. First, STBF took out the highest scoring applicants and gave them all awards (roughly 15 percent of applicants), then the lowest scoring applicants were removed from the pool. The rest of the applicant pool was then randomly assigned to receive the generous aid or not. The sample included roughly 3,700 treated applicants and 4,500 control applicants who didn’t receive an award. Of that sample, about 6,800 students, or 82 percent, indicated a four-year college as their preference, and the remainder a two-year college. Three-quarters of those in the experimental sample were eligible for need-based federal Pell grant aid, and fewer than a third had a parent with a bachelor's degree. The average, campus-specific award for those attending four-year and two-year institutions was, respectively, $8,200 and $3,900.
The researchers found that the STBF awards boosted enrollment in four-year institutions by almost 11 percentage points—mostly attributable to the decline in enrollment at two-year colleges—and boosted college completion for students in those schools by about 8 points. Conditional on not having a degree, college enrollment in the treated group is sharply higher than college enrollment in the control group two to five years after random assignment. Interestingly, although the aid boosted enrollment rates more for two-year than four-year applicants, it did not increase the completion of associate degrees among applicants in two-year colleges. Of those students who planned to attend a four-year college, 71 percent of scholarship recipients graduated within six years, while 63 percent of students who didn’t receive a scholarship graduated. Nonwhite students, those who were less prepared (that is, those with lower SAT scores), and those eligible for larger Pell grants benefited more from the award.
The awards in general also increased time for completion for some, which increased overall spending and resulted in a reduction in the cost-benefit of the program. And the researchers also found that many of the benefits would flow to upper-income students likely to finish anyway. In other words, most STBF program spending is a transfer, reducing student debt without affecting degree attainment.
In the end, given the lack of community college effects, the study implies that awards induce degree completion primarily to the extent that they spark and deepen early engagement with four-year institutions. Still, even if scholarship programs succeed on that front, there exist multiple other potential pitfalls to “free college”—free to the student that is—that our new president and his administration would be wise to keep in mind.
SOURCE: Joshua Angrist, David Autor, and Amanda Pallais, “Marginal Effects of Merit Aid for Low-Income Students,” School Effectiveness & Inequality Initiative Discussion Paper #2020.06 (September 2020).
Despite the burgeoning interest in “high-quality instructional materials” (HQIM) and energetic efforts in recent years to incentivize their use, “evidence is mixed on how much teachers actually use the materials that districts or schools adopt,” note the authors of a new research report from the RAND Corporation. “Teachers actively make decisions about what materials to use and how to use and adapt them. Their decisions reflect a multitude of beliefs and experiences, including teachers’ perceptions of what constitute quality instructional materials,” they write.
There’s no real mystery or surprise here. That “multitude of beliefs” is woven deeply into teacher training and professional practice. “In general, teachers in our study did not regard themselves as implementers of curricula, but as curators, modifiers, or creators of instructional materials,” notes the RAND report. The most common reasons teachers supplement or modify their materials are because they perceive the need to make them more engaging or they view its challenge level as inappropriate for their students.
The study is based on 2020 survey data culled from 1,748 middle and high school teachers and interviews with sixty-one of them. Among them “more than half confirmed that they curated and used a variety of materials for their day-to-day teaching.” When asked to describe the source of those materials, they reported “either using a search engine or visiting their go-to websites, such as Teachers Pay Teachers, Pinterest, and College Board (for Advanced Placement materials).”
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Customization is the hallmark of the skilled craftsman. Carpenters “modify” the lumber they purchase with saws, planes, and sandpaper. But when teachers modify their curricula, it’s generally to lower—not raise—the level of challenge and rigor. The carpenter hired to build a four-bedroom Cape Cod house doesn’t decide his customer isn’t ready for that much house and so builds a bungalow instead. But it’s unremarkable for teachers to assume—or to be told—that they are better judges of what students need than curriculum designers.
The RAND report gets at this politely, if obliquely: “Teachers may even use or create different materials altogether if they perceive that the district- or school-provided materials are lacking in characteristics that they believe will engage students and lead to learning. However, supplementing or modifying materials affects teachers’ time usage and could result in discrepant learning opportunities for students,” the authors note.
The second half of that observation—“discrepant learning opportunities”—has been poured over at length in recent years. A 2018 TNTP report titled “The Opportunity Myth,” based on student work samples, demonstrated that students met the requirements of their classroom assignments 71 percent of the time—however, the work assigned to them reflected grade-level academic standards only 17 percent of the time. Predictably, those discrepancies were even more in evidence in classrooms with a majority of students of color. In 40 percent of such classrooms, students never received even a single grade-level assignment, compared to only 12 percent of majority White classrooms where that was the case. The kindly and well-intended advice to teachers to “meet the children where they are” has tended to keep them where they are, reinforcing and even compounding inequities.
But the other half of the observation—the impact on teachers’ time usage—is less well-examined and could be having an even greater and more deleterious effect. The one fixed and immutable variable in a teacher’s day is time. Every hour spent creating, modifying, or “curating” instructional material is an hour not spent studying student work, giving feedback, advancing the teacher’s own mastery of his or her subject, building and enhancing relationships with students and parents, or any number of tasks and activities that surely advance or enhance learning more than assembling the basic curricular tools of her trade. There will always be a place for smart and sensible modifications, but I have observed elsewhere that, if our carpenter was encouraged to act like a teacher, he might start his days not in the lumber yard but in the forest. With a chainsaw.
The RAND team surfaces another critical nuance, too dimly appreciated by those who have pushed “standards-based reform” as a means of raising student achievement. Standards “alignment” is a feature of HQIM, but a limited one. It’s possible to have curriculum, particularly in ELA, that is “aligned” and still crap, with texts that are dull, uninspired, or consisting chiefly of what David Steiner of Johns Hopkins has derided as “bleeding chunks” of literature. “State, district, and school selection of curricula based on standards alignment has only taken us so far. Adopting standards-aligned materials has not necessarily resulted in teachers’ regular use of such materials,” the report concludes. “A narrow focus on standards alignment means that policymakers are at risk of overlooking other dimensions of instructional materials that teachers perceive to be essential and that influence them to use materials.”
That’s right but maybe only half of the story. The culture of teaching makes a virtue of all that creating, curating, and modifying, which takes time away from higher value uses of teacher time. No one judges great artists as less-than because they merely perform plays and music written by others. Perhaps it’s time to cultivate a similar appreciation of teaching, and for teachers to focus on the art of lesson delivery, and not on lesson design.
SOURCE: Elaine Lin Wang et al., “Teachers’ Perceptions of What Makes Instructional Materials Engaging, Appropriately Challenging, and Usable: A Survey and Interview Study,” RAND Corporation (2021).
On this week’s podcast, Mike Petrilli and David Griffith are joined by Andrew Campanella, president of National School Choice Week, which is this week, to discuss how the school choice movement has been altered by the pandemic. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines parents’ demand for childcare quality.
Amber's Research Minute
James A. Gordon, Chris M. Herbst, and Erdal Tekin, "Who's minding the kids? Experimental evidence on the demand for child care quality," Economics of Education Review 80 (2018): 102076.
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.
- “The covid-19 tragedy teaches this: Government is more apt to achieve adequacy when it does not try to achieve [regulatory] purity.” —Washington Post
- The CDC concludes that school transmission of coronavirus is scant, but it recommends caution with indoor athletics. —Washington Post
- “[C]ops and firefighters, nurses and National Guard troops, mail carriers and DMV workers, spies and bureaucrats—have been back on the job for months or never left…. Our teachers are needed, too.” —Matt Bai
- An Education Next national survey indicates that public support for teachers has remained steady during the pandemic. But locally, teachers feel demoralized by criticisms against unions resisting pressure to reopen. —Education Week
- “Washington and Lincoln are out. S.F. school board tosses 44 school names in controversial move.” 5—San Francisco Chronicle
- Although children are less likely to contract Covid-19, vaccination will protect the adults around them and keep them safe from the virus when they reach adulthood. —The Atlantic
- Pandemic learning losses threaten our future economy in the years when those who have fallen behind enter the workforce. Summer school may be the best of all the undesirable remedies. —NY Daily News
- “Are Teachers Unions Really Taking Over Biden’s Department of Education?” —The 74
- Charter school teachers in D.C. are going door to door to track students who are chronically absent and falling behind. And sadly, most reading losses are concentrated in the two poorest wards. —New York Times
- Despite Biden’s promises to reopen, teacher union resistance has parents frustrated and uncertain about whether their kids will return to the classroom this year, especially in urban districts. —USA Today
- Clark County schools in Las Vegas reported 18 student suicides in the last nine months—twice as many as the previous year. Superintendent Jesus Jara is pushing for reopening for the sake of students’ wellbeing. —New York Times
- Tennessee’s state assembly enacted several education bills designed to tackle third-grade literacy declines with a re-emphasis on phonics and an exam-based retention policy, among other reforms. —Associated Press
- The Los Angeles Unified School District rolls out a tutoring program that it intends to expand over the next five year. —EdSource