A new school year typically brings a fresh outlook and new hope.
A new school year typically brings a fresh outlook and new hope. But over the last few weeks, in response to recommendations from local health officials and worrisome data trends, dozens of school districts across Ohio have announced their plans to begin the 2020–21 school year completely online. Even if they understand the rationale, lots of parents and students aren’t looking forward to starting the year online. And in the case of remote reopenings, persistent problems are looming.
At a baseline, saying distance learning “didn’t work” this spring is an understatement. A large majority of parents and teachers reported that students learned considerably less than they would have under normal circumstances. A student survey conducted by the national nonprofit YouthTruth found that only 39 percent of students reported that they “learned a lot almost every day.” A May survey released by ParentsTogether Action found that parents from low-income homes were twice as likely as their more affluent peers to say that remote learning was going poorly or very poorly. The struggles of students with special needs were also widely reported.
No one knows whether schools have plans to address these issues going forward. Some educators likely spent the bulk of their summer months planning for in-person reopenings, not another semester of online learning. And although families might feel like distance learning is familiar by now, it doesn’t make juggling professional and educational responsibilities any easier. Unfortunately, remote learning isn’t going to be easier either. In fact, it might even be more difficult.
Why? For starters, what worked—or at least sufficed—this spring won’t work this fall. Education Week reported in May that teachers were spending less time on instruction overall, less time on introducing new material, and more time on review. Given the timing of the spring closures, which covered the final quarter of the school year just before state testing season, it’s reasonable to assume that many schools would have been reviewing anyway. But that won’t fly this fall. Teachers can and should review previous material when necessary. But unlike last spring, students will need to be introduced to—and master—new, grade-level content or risk falling even further behind.
Providing such rigorous instruction will also be difficult. The struggles of navigating digital platforms haven’t diminished. In April, a principal at a high school in northern Kentucky told the Cincinnati Enquirer that one of the difficulties at the high school level is “getting students enough real-time support to do the work. When you think about subjects like advanced mathematics, this often requires modeling, practice with real-time feedback, question/answer, and potentially after-school tutoring.” Now these struggles will be compounded by spring learning losses. For teachers, that means starker achievement gaps and a much broader range of student academic needs. Differentiation has always been notoriously difficult. The pandemic will make it worse.
There’s also the relationship aspect to teaching and learning. Anyone who’s stood at the front of a classroom of children can attest to just how important relationships are when it comes to student growth. This spring, teachers had the benefit of already-established relationships with students and families. This fall, they won’t have that luxury. They’ll have to start from scratch, and they’ll have to build relationships over digital platforms.
Meanwhile, students are facing a laundry list of social-emotional struggles: sick loved ones, family financial troubles, loneliness and isolation, missed milestones, increased depression and anxiety, and broader societal unrest. A recent piece from The 74 put it this way: “In many ways, the pandemic has been a universally shared form of trauma among young people, and it is likely to increase the mental health challenges students will experience.”
In short, remote learning is going to be a lot harder this fall than it was this spring. That doesn’t mean schools are wrong to open fully remote. Reopening decisions are complicated, and local leaders are trying their best to keep everyone healthy and safe. But it’s important to be realistic about how difficult the next few weeks will be for remote-only schools. Identifying potential issues and addressing them consistently and effectively is vital. Otherwise, students will pay the price.
The pandemic has been a stark reminder of the importance of educational attainment in uncertain times. Less-educated workers have suffered higher rates of unemploymentand, if remaining employed, are probably in jobs with greater risks of getting sick. They’ll also likely face the longest road to recovery once the economy stabilizes.
To its credit, state leaders were already taking steps prior to the pandemic to ensure that Ohioans—young and old—have the educational credentials needed to obtain—and keep—rewarding jobs. These initiatives, which include the Ohio Attainment Goal, are motivated in part by projections indicating that by 2025, 64 percent of Ohio’s jobs will require a post-secondary credential (e.g., college degree or industry certification). That number could rise, as some analysts are now saying that the pandemic is likely to further accelerate shifts to automation and the digital economy.
The problem, however, is that just 49 percent of working-age Ohioans have a post-secondary credential. To maintain this full-court press to boost attainment, a coalition of more than forty organizations (including Fordham) recently released a statewide action plan to increase educational attainment. Representing K–12 and higher education, philanthropy, and employers, the Complete to Compete Ohio Coalition informs policymakers and the public about the importance of attainment for individual Ohioans and for the long-term prosperity of the state.
The plan is organized around five key strategies under which specific recommendations are included, with a focus on strengthening public-private partnerships, improving access to learning opportunities, and sending clear and coherent messages. As might be expected in a plan aiming to improve post-secondary attainment, many of the ideas apply to higher education and adult workforce training.
K–12 education of course also plays a critical role in ensuring that Ohioans have the foundational skills and abilities needed to earn post-secondary credentials. As such, the plan includes a number of recommendations relevant to K–12. The following highlights three of these recommendations—and my thoughts on why they are so important.
“Identify and remove barriers, such as legal barriers (e.g., insurance and age restrictions), for schools, students and businesses interested in work-based learning experiences.” Work-based learning—internships, co-ops, and apprenticeships—are excellent opportunities for students to gain first-hand experience in a career field of interest. On-the-job training can help young people build technical skills, learn to conduct themselves professionally, and open doors for future employment. But as the coalition’s recommendation suggests, barriers could be getting in the way of students hoping to avail themselves of work-based opportunities. Some apprenticeship programs, for example, require students to be eighteen years old to participate. Policymakers, employers, and training centers could, as suggested in the report, consider loosening age restrictions and other regulations to allow more young people to gain valuable workplace experience.
“Improve data collection of industry credentials and analyze which credentials students are earning, how the most commonly earned credentials are aligned to in-demand jobs and how the credentials affect labor market outcomes.” In 2013–14, Ohio began reporting the percentage of students earning industry-recognized credentials on school report cards. This data point has shed important light on the career readiness of students, especially those who may not be pursuing higher education right after high school. The most recent data, however, indicate that just 6 percent of Ohio students earned industry credentials—technically, accruing at least twelve credentialing “points”—while in high school. While knowing this is a great start, it doesn’t allow us to see what types of credentials students earn. Are they being earned largely in less rewarding career fields, or more fulfilling ones? Moreover, as this recommendation suggests, information about the link between individual credentials and employment outcomes would be a welcome addition. Such data could allow policymakers to review the “points” system, so that the credentials with the most potential for higher wages receive more weight. It could also enable policymakers to tie funding incentives to the most economically valuable credentials.
“Increase the number of high school students enrolling in, and successfully completing, postsecondary-level learning by expanding availability of Advanced Placement (AP) courses and completion of associated AP examinations.” The Advanced Placement (AP) program has long offered rigorous, college-level coursework to high school students. It also includes end-of-course exams that give students opportunities to earn college credit for passing scores—a leg up when it comes to finishing a degree. While the program has grown in popularity, just 26 percent of Ohio’s class of 2018 took at least one AP course and only 14 percent passed an AP exam (a score of at least three out of five). Part of the problem is that a large number schools don’t appear to even offer such courses—118 districts, for instance, reported zero students in the class of 2018 as having taken an AP course. The coalition’s recommendation to increase access to AP courses is certainly praiseworthy. But how to get it done will be the real challenge. At the state level, Fordham has suggested giving teachers bonuses when their students pass AP exams. The state should also continue to subsidize low-income students’ exam fees. But even these initiatives are likely not enough, as local efforts may be even more crucial to unlocking AP opportunities. Regional collaboration, for example, might allow for “itinerant teachers” who teach AP courses across multiple districts, or engage tutors who provide extra help if students enroll in an online AP course.
Too many high school graduates enter colleges and workplaces without the knowledge and skills necessary for success. The pandemic has only increased the rate of change and the challenges associated with entering the labor market. Unfortunately, ill-prepared young people will suffer the consequences when they lack the educational background needed to advance in their careers. Policymakers—both state and local—should heed the ideas in the coalition report and, more importantly, put them into action.
 Ohio has a system that assigns various points (from one to twelve) to each credential or certification; completing a state-approved apprenticeship also yields twelve points.
2020 has brought no shortage of headlines—and many of them aren’t exactly heartwarming. Education is no exception. Controversy over reopening plans, persistent connectivity troubles, and diverging opinions among key stakeholders have dominated national and local media coverage.
It’s been a rough year, and we’ve still got months to go. So when good news finally surfaces, it’s a welcome relief. One such story has been the official opening of I Promise Village, a transitional housing complex in Akron. The renovated apartment building provides rent-free housing for up to sixteen families experiencing homelessness, domestic violence, and other unforeseen circumstances. As its name indicates, it’s specifically designated for the families of students who attend LeBron James’s I Promise School (IPS). It is heartening that the pandemic did not delay renovations or the opening.
Chances are that even if you’re not an Akron native like me, you’ve probably heard of IPS. The school is a joint effort between the LeBron James Family Foundation, the I Promise Network, and Akron Public Schools. It serves nearly 500 of Akron’s most at-risk students in third through sixth grade and offers a plethora of additional, year-round services to them and their families.
Although it is technically part of Akron Public Schools, IPS isn’t a typical traditional district school. It uses a curriculum anchored in science, technology, engineering, and math. Like Ohio’s independent, non-district-affiliated STEM schools, it is part of Ohio’s STEM Learning Network. The school calendar comprises an extended school day and year, just like many of the country’s best charter networks. And much like private and other schools of choice, it has alternative schedules and working conditions for teachers. The school has an “intentional focus on social-emotional learning and a strategic approach to trauma-informed curriculum.” And all these unique features seem to be paying off. The school is doing well on in-house measures like NWEA MAP as well as state report cards.
The school’s uniqueness also extends beyond just academics. The IPS website notes that the school “places an intentional focus on family engagement and dedicates extensive resources to support its students’ entire families.” These resources include access to a food pantry with no limits or restrictions and a resource room stocked with necessities like socks, coats, and toiletries. Through partnerships with community organizations and businesses, IPS offers families medical and vision care, GED opportunities, job and career services, legal aid, financial literacy programming, and mental health assistance. There’s also a new recreation facility that’s coming soon. Oh, and scholarships to attend the University of Akron for students who meet certain criteria.
Given that IPS is so closely tied to LeBron James, one of the world’s greatest athletes, it’s been the subject of tons of media coverage. Not all of it has been accurate or fair. One of the most common talking points has been whether IPS could serve as a model for other public schools. The answer to that question is complicated. It would be difficult for any school to replicate all the things that make IPS a success without the star power and financial backing of someone like James. In the most literal sense, then, IPS can’t be a model. Especially in the middle of a financial crisis, when James’s foundation could theoretically plug any budgetary holes the school faces.
But in terms of its mission and values, IPS is an excellent model. The oft-repeated tagline “We are family” is more than just a phrase it prints on t-shirts. A quick perusal of its website or any number of recent media stories proves that IPS is deeply focused on kids’ needs the way a family would be. It isn’t a perfect school. No school is. But it’s consistently doing right by kids, and that’s worthy of praise and emulation, especially in the middle of a pandemic.
In the coming months, parents and stakeholders will need to walk a fine line between grace and accountability for schools. As they do, they’d be wise to apply the IPS test. Most schools don’t have a superstar founder or endless streams of cash. But are they identifying what’s best for kids and working hard to make it happen? If so, persevere. But if not, it’s time to make some changes.
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).