In the last six months, as the nation has struggled in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s been a lot of controversy and disagreement over what schools need
In the last six months, as the nation has struggled in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s been a lot of controversy and disagreement over what schools need and how they should reopen. As we head into election season, the controversy will probably only increase. But there’s one thing that everyone should be able to agree on: Students need talented teachers now more than ever.
To be fair, schools have always needed talented teachers. A multitude of research has shown that quality teaching is necessary for student achievement and for positive labor market outcomes, so saying that teachers matter when it comes to closing achievement gaps isn’t exactly a startling revelation. But as Covid-19 fallout continues to build, and recommendations for how schools can mitigate learning losses pile up, there aren’t a whole lot of people talking specifically about beefing up our teaching force with as many talented educators as we can find. Ideas like high dosage tutoring and summer school are important. But the sheer size of coronavirus impacts means we need to invest in a solution that can reach every community in the coming years—and teachers are one of the few things all schools have in common.
Although effective teachers are the key to helping students everywhere catch up, some communities will need them more than others. The pandemic’s persistence has forced hundreds of Ohio schools to reopen this fall fully remote. Starting a new school year with distance learning is hard no matter who you are. But it appears that certain groups of students are more likely to be stuck with distance learning. Nationwide, minority students are more likely than white students to be starting the new year online. And in Ohio, many of the districts with the highest concentration of low-income students—Cleveland and Columbus for instance—are fully remote while neighboring affluent suburbs provide in-person options.
To be clear, some of these differences are due to parental preferences. And in many places, distance learning is still the safest option. But being physically present in school is critical for students, not just in terms of academic learning, but also for healthy development and well-being. In affluent districts, parents have options that can mitigate the loss of school. Families in underserved communities don’t have those options, so their schools need to invest in an intervention that promises the best results to the most students—finding, hiring, and retaining high caliber teachers.
Until we get results from reliable and comparable tests like state assessments and NAEP, we won’t have hard data about just how much ground low-income and minority students will need to make up. But there are indications that achievement and progress gaps have grown considerably. The 74 recently reported that when schools shut down this spring, participation and progress on Zearn Math, an online math program for students in grades K–5, decreased among students from low- and middle-income communities but increased among those from high-income areas. David Williams, the policy outreach director for a research group based out of Harvard University known as Opportunity Insights, confirmed that the data seem to suggest school closures have widened existing learning gaps. He told The 74: “This crisis is really impacting low-income kids and low-income communities in a real way that could spell trouble down the road.”
Obviously, Zearn Math is just one example. But so is a canary in a coal mine. In low-income and minority communities, students are more likely to still be learning remotely, and we know distance learning didn’t work. Existing achievement gaps were already wide. A lack of academic opportunities during this pandemic almost certainly expanded them. Research suggests that when it comes to achievement and growth, teachers matter most among school-related factors. To make up for lost ground, underserved schools need talented and effective teachers more than, well, anything.
Unfortunately, hiring and retaining talented teachers is far more complicated than it sounds, even in normal circumstances. The pandemic hasn’t just impacted student learning, it’s also impacted the current teaching force and the pipeline of prospective teachers. It’s going to be difficult for schools to find the talent they need, but not impossible. Stay tuned for a closer look at how to make it happen.
Ohio legislators recently introduced Senate Bill 358 to cancel all state testing scheduled for spring 2021, suspend report cards for the 2020–21 and 2021–22 school years, and extend so-called “safe harbor” provisions that shield schools from consequences tied to state ratings. The provision calling for the cancellation of state exams would only go into effect if the state receives an assessment waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. (Thus far, the department has signaled a reluctance to issue waivers for the coming spring.)
Given the uncertainties of the pandemic, some of the SB 358 provisions are reasonable. In a June report, my Fordham colleague Chad Aldis and I recommended that school ratings be withheld for 2020–21 (though not the year after). We also suggested that Ohio stop the practice of safe harbor and move permanently away from formal sanctions linked to report cards. But—in sharp contrast to SB 358—we also urged lawmakers to resume state assessments this year, a position that is consistent with other education groups and recently the Columbus Dispatch editorial board. Why the need to assess? Let’s review.
State assessments gauge where students stand against Ohio’s grade-level expectations. The pandemic may have upended our lives, but it has not changed the timeless reality that students need to master reading, writing, and arithmetic. To this end, Ohio has implemented rigorous academic standards that set forth the knowledge and skills that pupils are expected to learn by the end of each grade level. State assessments that are aligned to these standards gauge the extent to which students meet such expectations. Taking only about 1 percent of a student’s school year, these “summative” exams serve as a vital check on learning that enable parents, schools, and communities to better understand whether children are on-track academically or need extra help.
Importantly, state assessments also encourage schools to adhere to state standards and help guard against lowered expectations. This purpose of testing is especially crucial as schools continue to rely on remote instruction during the pandemic. Widespread concerns have been raised about student learning via this delivery method, especially among children with special needs and from low-income backgrounds. Upholding the assessment system this year would help to ensure that schools are doing everything in their power to keep all students engaged and working towards grade-level standards. Indeed, concerns about schools falling prey to the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is one reason why civil rights groups have been such outspoken advocates for assessments, including their administration this coming spring.
State assessments provide an “external audit” of proficiency that complements course grades and diagnostic tests. Some have argued that course grades and diagnostic tests provide all the information that’s needed to understand pupil performance. While grades and diagnostics are very important tools, they alone cannot offer a complete picture of student achievement. Course grades typically reflect non-academic factors, such as attendance or participation, and are subject to “grade inflation,” the harmful practice of assigning grades that overstate students’ actual mastery of the course material. Perhaps reflecting such inflation, surveys find that a vast majority of parents believe their kids are on-track, even though exam data indicate far fewer students meet proficiency targets. Diagnostic exams can help educators pinpoint specific areas where students struggle, but using them as substitutes for state assessments would create immense confusion for parents and communities. Does an 80 percent proficiency rate on the NWEA MAP test mean the same thing as an 80 percent proficiency rate on the iReady exam? A testing expert may know, but those who don’t work in education will be left scratching their heads.
In sum, state exams round out our view of student achievement. Unlike course grades, they offer an impartial, unfiltered assessment of proficiency. And unlike diagnostic tests, they provide comparable information that allows communities to see how their schools stack up against statewide averages and neighboring districts. As Ohioans undertake the hard work of supporting children’s academic recovery, they’ll need a full toolkit of information about pupil achievement—one that includes state assessment results.
Baseline state assessment data is essential to tracking progress moving forward. Speaking of recovery, it will be an immense undertaking to support the thousands of students who have struggled to learn during the pandemic. It’s vital that baseline information is gathered sooner rather than later. While the cancellation of last year’s state tests was necessary, it also means that up-to-date information about achievement doesn’t exist. Another year of cancelled state tests would only compound the problem, as we’d be even less informed about the academic toll of months of disruption. Communities would likely have to rely on anecdotes and assumptions about student needs—hardly the foundation for effective planning—and they’d need to wait yet another year to begin tracking progress moving forward. Another gap year in state testing would also complicate the calculation of student growth (or “value-added”), a critical measure that provides a look at school quality that isn’t tied to pupil demographics. Analysts are already raising alarms about widening achievement gaps due to the pandemic. Without reliable value-added data, we won’t be able to identify and learn from high-poverty schools that are helping low-income and minority students make progress in the midst of the pandemic.
* * *
The past year has presented a host of challenges to Ohio’s parents and educators. But students are no less in need of an excellent education than they were before the health crisis struck. To understand where students stand—and to offer help if necessary—parents and communities need the information yielded by state assessments. Giving schools a reprieve from some accountability measures is the right thing to do, but cancelling state exams again goes too far.
Note: Today, the Ohio Senate’s Education Committee continued hearing testimony on SB 358 which would, among other things, make critical changes to the state’s testing and accountability system in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Chad Aldis, Fordham’s Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy, testified as an interested party on certain aspects of the legislation. These are his written remarks.
Thank you Chair Lehner, Vice Chair Brenner, Ranking Member Fedor, and Senate Education Committee members for giving me the opportunity today to provide interested party testimony today on Senate Bill 358.
My name is Chad Aldis, and I am the Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The Fordham Institute is an education-focused nonprofit that conducts research, analysis, and policy advocacy with offices in Columbus, Dayton, and Washington, D.C.
The last six months have been challenging, as we’ve learned to live with Covid-19 and its many impacts. As we’re all well aware, education hasn’t been spared. This past spring, students across the state were thrust into remote learning. This fall, many students are still learning either remotely or through hybrid models that have greatly reduced the number of student-teacher interactions.
The bill sponsors should be applauded for recognizing the strain on both educators and students, and for taking steps to ameliorate any potential negative impacts. At Fordham we’ve been thinking along the same lines, and we published a policy brief and set of recommendations in June (attached) on how to reset and restart the state accountability system after a year without state assessments.
We support a number of the recommendations included in SB 358 including:
- Putting a hold on the use of assessment results and growth measures in teacher evaluations
- Foregoing state report card ratings during the 2020-21 school year (though this will likely require a federal waiver)
- Prohibiting the use of assessment data in the coming year for anything that might be considered a sanction, such as academic distress commissions, charter school closures, and changes to EdChoice eligibility
That being said, the change that received the most attention in prior testimony—cancelling this school year’s state assessments—would be the wrong approach for a host of reasons.
First, the shift to distance learning this spring combined with continued uncertainty this fall makes it more important than ever to gauge where students are academically. Nationally, experts have suggested that students—especially those already facing the biggest hurdles—may have fallen so far behind that they’ve lost anywhere from 7 to 12 months of learning. To determine whether this is true in Ohio and to identify what students learned during these tumultuous months, spring state assessments should be administered. Figuring out which students were most impacted by school closures would also allow the state to allocate more resources to the areas where the biggest learning losses occurred.
Second, it’s critical for parents to get objective information on their children’s progress. Moms and dads know that their children are only going to be fifth graders once. If they haven’t learned what they’re supposed to learn in fifth grade, then those gaps could make things harder in middle and high school. This is especially important now, as many schools issued grades last spring on a pass/fail basis. In my daughter’s school, passing a class resulted in a grade of “100.” This gave me very little information as to what she actually learned, and made her school-created report card essentially meaningless. Objective, detailed information helps parents know when to seek assistance—whether that’s reaching out to their child’s teacher, supplementing in-class work, or even engaging a tutor.
Third, while we hope this pandemic will soon be behind us, we simply don’t know what the future holds. Ohio needs to be prepared for whatever comes next. Because each community crafted its own reopening approach, state testing can help us understand which communities had the most success during this time. What strategies worked the best with remote learning? Was hybrid learning superior to all-remote instruction? There’s much we can learn from this experience, but having high quality data is essential.
Finally, this situation is temporary. Eventually, Ohio’s schools will return to something resembling normalcy. When they do, it’ll be important to have baseline data that allows us to gauge how schools perform in the years after 2020-21. This is critical for report card elements like student growth and achievement gaps—the fairest measures to high poverty schools—as they require multiple years of data. By administering spring assessments in 2021, we’ll be able to establish a new normal. This will ensure schools aren’t rated based upon pre-Covid academic performance and allow Ohio, at the appropriate time, to restart the state’s education accountability system.
In conclusion, we support reducing the pressure and any sanctions associated with state assessments in 2021. However, this committee would be wise to avoid a protracted discussion on eliminating the assessments entirely. A recent letter from Secretary of Education DeVos makes clear that—at least for now—the federal government is not likely to grant waivers from state testing requirements in 2021. The secretary’s letter drew praise from a variety of education and civil rights groups including ExcelinEd, the Center for American Progress, the Education Trust, the National Urban League, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and the League of United Latin American Citizens. Importantly, Secretary DeVos’s letter indicated that some flexibility may well be allowed around accountability. That creates an opening for states like Ohio to request a waiver not from testing, but from issuing grades and ratings. We’d urge this committee to pursue that option. Most of what is in SB 358 can still be implemented without eliminating assessments. Furthermore, the state (and parents) would benefit from getting accurate information about where students stand academically, be empowered to direct additional resources to places where students were most impacted, and be well-positioned to move forward when this virus is finally behind us.
Thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony. I’m happy to answer any questions that you may have.
has —and common sense reinforces—that postsecondary when the overall labor market is weak. But that boost could come from many parts of the population, including recent high school graduates attempting to avoid a fruitless job search or individuals who switch jobs voluntarily in response to signs of trouble in a given sector. Very little direct evidence exists on whether workers who actually lose their jobs due to an economic downturn really do head back to school. A new NBER by three researchers from Columbia and Stanford is the first to explore the direct effect of job displacement—as far as the data will currently allow—on college enrollment in Ohio.
The data come from various Ohio state agencies made available through the(OERC). They include enrollment data at public colleges and universities in the state, as well as information from all public and private employers subject to Unemployment Insurance (UI) contributions. A majority of employers in Ohio fall under this category, although many workers (contractors, gig employees) do not work for UI-contributing companies. The timeframe covered is the start of the third quarter of 1999 through the end of the first quarter of 2013. Importantly, the earnings records include individual identifiers that link to post-secondary education data. Thus, the analysts can identify the exact quarter when an employee left the workforce (referred to as a “separation”) and when they enrolled at a public college or university. Unfortunately, the earnings records don’t identify the employee’s reason for separation, so it is impossible to definitively determine whether they were displaced due to an economic downturn.
The analysts construct their sample using separations that occurred during any mass layoff event—defined as a 30 percent or more quarter-to-quarter reduction in a firm’s employment, with adjustments made for smaller employers. An employee was considered displaced if they were let go during a mass layoff, worked at a firm for at least one year prior to the mass layoff, were not re-employed at that firm during the quarter after the mass layoff, held only one job at the time of separation, and earned the equivalent of at least minimum wage while working at least thirty hours per week. More than 68,500 workers were so identified. A comparison sample of just over 898,000 workers, dubbed the “continuously employed,” was constructed with the following criteria: those who were continuously employed (but not necessarily at the same employer) throughout the study period, who had at least three years of tenure at any firm, and who earned at least minimum wage while working at least thirty hours per week.
Even before examining the layoffs, the groups differed a little. Displaced workers were more likely to have previously enrolled at a two-year institution than continuously employed workers, though the latter were more likely to have enrolled in a four-year institution. Displaced workers showed lower earnings than continuously employed workers, and they were more likely to be employed in heavy industry. In fact, nearly half of all displaced workers were laid off from just three industries: manufacturing, construction, and retail trade (think grocery stores, car dealerships, and gas stations).
So far, so intuitive. But what happened to those displaced workers? Less than 10 percent of them ended up enrolling in any Ohio public institution of higher education following their separation, and a majority of those were folks going back to school after previous enrollment pre-separation. Of those who enrolled in college, more than a quarter earned a degree within two years of separation and nearly 33 percent did so within four years of separation. If you’re interested in an even deeper dive into this finding, there’s a good but sobering article in a. Bottom line: The idea that most displaced workers will retrain or “skill up” after a layoff—at least by enrolling in college—is not borne out by the data.
There are two caveats to point out amidst this somewhat surprising news. First, a significant number of displaced workers enrolling in college after separation were also working at that time. Of those, more than half were employed more than part-time. This is not just an indicator that college enrollment takes money; it is evidence that living in tough economic times requires gainful employment. Second, data limitations mean that individuals who leave Ohio, exit the labor force, begin working for non-UI covered employers, or attend private or out-of-state institutions after separation cannot be tracked. The latter point is particularly relevant as previoushas that for-profit colleges providing short-term certificate programs in high-demand fields are attractive to individuals looking to retrain. The analysts, while unable to fully explore for-profit enrollment data, are able to demonstrate that workers are less likely to enroll in public colleges if they are displaced in parts of Ohio where a higher concentration of for-profit institutions are located. This is likely not a coincidence.
While no recommendations are provided in the working paper itself, discussion from co-author Judith Scott-Clayton at Inside Higher Ed includes this analysis: “When you lose a job, it really is a complex calculus. How do you know when it’s worthwhile to actually step away from the labor market and go back to school? It is a more complicated decision that they’re making. They need guidance counselors, too.” Some of the onus for better guidance to displaced workers falls on the postsecondary institutions seeking to help them, but a more concerted state level effort—especially—seems a stronger first step.
SOURCE: Veronica Minaya, Brendan Moore, and Judith Scott-Clayton, “,” NBER Working Papers (August 2020).
The National Center for Rural Education Research Networks (NCRERN) is a recently established organization out of Harvard that studies and supports a network of rural school districts in New York and Ohio. To better understand how these districts were navigating the pandemic, NCRERN staff conducted phone interviews with district officials and other leaders. They spoke to representatives from forty of their forty-nine partner districts during the month of April, approximately three to five weeks after school shutdowns. This summer, they published a report that outlines the results in four key areas: meeting students’ basic needs, facilitating access to learning, educating students, and building community.
Districts focused on three aspects of basic needs: access to food, physical safety, and mental health. When schools officially closed, the education departments in both states emphasized how critical it was for districts to continue distributing meals. Many families were unable to leave their homes or arrange transportation to school sites, so districts had to get creative. Some rose to the challenge by creating meal delivery programs where school bus drivers dropped off food at designated stops or delivered it door to door.
District officials were worried that students might be experiencing physical abuse at home and couldn’t seek help. Their concern is understandable: In-person classes allow teachers and staff to keep an eye out for signs of abuse and neglect, but virtual learning makes that far more difficult. To complicate matters further, districts struggled to get in touch with some families despite intensive outreach efforts. In an effort to connect with these missing students and ensure their safety, some schools sent school resource officers to conduct wellness checks.
Addressing students’ social and emotional health was also a top priority. In fact, based on interview responses, districts appeared to place more emphasis on supporting students’ mental health than on academic progress. For the most part, teachers were responsible for addressing mental health concerns. They identified struggling students and connected them with school counselors, social workers, and psychologists. District officials also expressed frustration with the lack of social and emotional health resources at their disposal.
As far as learning access, rural districts in both states reported that, like their suburban and urban counterparts, students were struggling with connectivity issues. Twelve districts in New York and an additional three in Ohio had one-to-one device programs in place prior to the pandemic, making their transition to remote learning a little easier. Most schools were able to distribute devices to students who needed them. A lack of stable internet access, though, proved to be a major problem. The magnitude varied—some districts only had a handful of students without internet, while others reported as many as 33 percent—but nearly every district acknowledged the issue. School leaders took several approaches to address it, including creating community maps that displayed locations with free Wi-Fi, purchasing cellular data plans for students, connecting families with low-cost internet, and buying and distributing individual hotspots. One district reported spending more than $25,000 for ninety-seven hotspots.
In terms of educating students via distance learning, districts focused on instruction, curriculum, grading, and student engagement. Instruction took one of three forms: synchronous online learning, asynchronous online learning, or self-guided learning through packets or workbooks. Many teachers focused on reviewing previous content rather than presenting new material. Districts also reported that mimicking a typical six-hour school day on digital platforms like Zoom was difficult for students, so they limited online hours. Grading practices varied. Some districts maintained their normal standards, while others transitioned to pass/fail or other more “flexible” approaches. Methods for taking attendance also varied, though most schools linked it to completion; students were marked present as long as they submitted assignments.
The trickiest metric to measure—but also the most interesting to district leaders—was student engagement. Seventeen districts reported tracking it in quantifiable terms. They had an average rate of 75 percent, though numbers ranged between 20 and 95 percent and varied based on classroom and grade level. District officials shared that it was difficult to determine whether low engagement was due to Covid-19-related barriers, such as limited internet access. Overall, engagement seemed to mirror in-person patterns; students who were highly engaged in-person were more likely to engage in distance learning.
The final priority for rural districts was maintaining community. Communication was vital, and districts used a variety of methods to connect with families, including school websites, Facebook Live check-ins, phone calls, social media posts, text messages, emails, home visits, postcards, and letters. Several districts got creative about how to maintain their usual programming in the age of social distancing, and hosted virtual field days, Zoom lunches, art shows, and open mic nights. There was also a consistent focus on celebrating graduating seniors.
The NCRERN staff were careful to note that these results should be interpreted with caution, as not all districts answered every question. The sample size was also relatively small. But the findings, which were published back in July, are still applicable today and don’t just pertain to rural districts. For instance, the report closes with some key questions that policymakers should consider for all districts, not just rural schools. They include how districts can identify effective ways to measure student attendance during distance or hybrid learning, and how schools can deliver the same quality of instruction to all students when some lack access to the internet or internet-enabled devices. Considering how many schools recently reopened using a virtual or hybrid model, these questions seem particularly important—and, unfortunately, remain unanswered.
SOURCE: Tara Nicola, Alexis Gable, and Jennifer Ash, “The Response of Rural Districts to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University (July 2020).