Education Must Be Part Of Our Coronavirus Response

Our guest author today is Stanley Litow, Professor at Duke and Columbia Universities, where he teaches about the role of corporations in society, and the author of The Challenge for Business and Society: From Risk to Reward. He formerly led Corporate Social Responsibility at IBM, where he was twice selected as CEO of the Year by Corporate Responsibility Magazine.

Americans are doing their best to cope with coronavirus and the disruption and healthcare emergency it has caused in all of our lives. We are in the midst of a crisis we have not experienced over many generations. The impact on our economy will be cataclysmic, affecting all Americans in all states and territories. Millions of jobs are at risk, along with savings and retirements. But as horrific as this event is (and it is clearly not over), a coordinated response and massive spending from local, state, and federal governments can help to mitigate the disaster and speed recovery. Whether it takes months or years, we will experience a recovery. And while the economic disruption will last for a very long time, the educational disruption is likely to last much longer. A generation of America's children have seen their educations thrown into chaos and we will need a response equal to, and perhaps greater than, what our governments are now doing.

With little time for preparation or planning, just months before the end of the school year, schools across the nation were abruptly forced to close. While some parents are attempting to continue their children's learning opportunities at home, the vast majority of American children are receiving little to no educational support. School districts across the nation have also started to deliver some hastily produced classes online, but families at the bottom of the economic system often have no access to technology or internet access, making the challenge almost impossible. In addition, most other educational entities have been closed: public libraries, museums, after-school programs, and not-for-profit social services agencies, etc., leaving impoverished families with few viable options, even for public access to online schooling. 

When our schools reopen, as they ultimately will, and the economic and health crises have begun to improve, our schools will still need a focused, sustained, and elevated national response, and it must have the support of all Americans and every segment of society. The 2020-21 school year will be a test for our nation.

Returning To School During The Pandemic: An Opportunity To Integrate Social-Emotional AND Academic Learning

Our guest authors today are Bill Wilmot and Bryan Mascio. Bill is a UDL Implementation Specialist at CAST and adjunct faculty at Lasell University, supporting educators to create more inclusive curriculum, classrooms and systems. Bryan is a Teaching Faculty at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, where he helps prepare new teachers and works with schools to become more equitable and inclusive.

As we return to school in an ongoing pandemic, how do we support all learners to heal from what has been an overwhelming emotional toll accompanied by social isolation? How do we support students from what, for some, felt like insurmountable barriers to academic learning? How do we create a pedagogical approach and a means of responding to student behavioral needs that simultaneously and synergistically prioritizes compassion and knowledge building?

Policymakers, researchers and practitioners planning for a return from the last year and a half of pandemic schooling overwhelmingly recommend two consistent focal points of our energies. In the ED COVID-19 Handbook Volume 2, the US Department of Education guides us to focus on “meeting the social, emotional and mental health needs of students... and addressing lost instructional time.” The Annenberg Institute summarizes research saying that “Unaddressed trauma diminishes students’ abilities to benefit from rigorous instruction.” And, “whole-school strategies for addressing trauma tend to be more effective than strategies that focus on identifying individual students for secondary intervention” by shaping the very culture of the classroom. During the pandemic, practitioners across the country embraced the need to check in on the social and emotional well-being of learners not just during morning circle and advisory, but during math and social studies instruction as well. This push toward an empathy orientation and creating the space for emotional processing was so important and continues to be essential as we return from the pandemic.

A More Actionable Take On The Science Of Reading

Our guest author today is Susan B. Neuman, Professor of Early Childhood & Literacy Education, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, & Human Development at New York University.

Over the past few years, “the science of reading” has become the latest obsession in the field of education. From professors and textbook publishers claiming they teach it to politicians and principals claiming they follow it, the science of reading is everywhere.

And nowhere.

Like so much jargon, “the science of reading” is fast becoming a meaningless label—it’s applied to draw attention to political circumstances and no longer signals any deep understanding of how literacy develops. So let’s take another approach. Let’s define reading proficiency in a way that may be comprehensible and compelling, not only to educators but to the general public as well. And the clearest model to date is Gough’s and Tunmer’s “the simple view of reading.”

The simple view of reading is rather elegant in its efficiency.  Basically, it argues that reading comprehension—that is, reading with real meaning is a product of fluent decoding and language comprehension. Essentially the model goes like this:  Reading comprehension (RC) = fluent decoding (D) X language comprehension (LC). Neither fluent decoding nor language comprehension alone is sufficient for reading comprehension. Like Sinatra would say, you simply can’t have one without the other.

School Funding And Equal Educational Opportunity

Equal opportunity is kind of the endgame in education policy. That is, school systems should provide all students, regardless of their backgrounds or economic circumstances, with what they need to achieve minimum acceptable outcome levels. 

School funding is a huge factor in the equal opportunity realm, given that virtually all effective education policies require investment. From the finance perspective, states can achieve equal opportunity by allocating funds such that districts with higher costs—e.g., those serving higher-poverty populations—have enough to pay those costs (primarily by using state funds to help districts with less capacity to raise funds locally). In other words, the job of states is to ensure that funding is adequate in all districts.

What we’ve found in the School Finance Indicators Database (SFID), in short, is that there is plenty of educational opportunity in the U.S., but it’s not equal. Let’s quickly visualize some of our SFID data and see how that’s the case.

The Disturbingly Persistent Decline In State Education Effort

Fiscal effort (or simply “effort”) is an important tool for evaluating states’ school finance systems. Effort tells you how much of a state’s capacity—how big a slice of its “economic pie”—is devoted to K-12 schools. Effort indicators help you determine whether states lag behind in spending because they have smaller economies from which to draw revenue, or because they have simply failed to devote a large enough share of their capacities to their public schools.

Effort can change over time due to changes in spending, capacity, or both. The trend in fiscal effort over the past 20 years, and particularly since the “Great Recession” of 2007-09, is among the most concerning results we have presented from the School Finance Indicators Database (with our collaborators Bruce Baker and Mark Weber).

The graph below presents U.S. average effort (unweighted) between 1997 and 2018. Effort is calculated very simply: we divide each state’s total spending (direct to K-12 education) by its total capacity. The latter can be measured in two different ways, each of which is represented by a different line in the graph: gross state product (the blue line) and aggregate personal income (the red line). These two denominators produce extremely similar trends. The estimates for all years exclude D.C., for which effort is not calculated, and Vermont, due to irregularities in that state’s spending data in 2018 (the state is excluded from all years to keep a consistent set of states across years). Finally, note that the y-axis in the graph starts at two percent, and so year-to-changes appear a bit larger than they would if the axis started at zero.

How Non-Zero Tolerance Policies Better Support Our Students: Part II

As I discussed in a previous post, one of the most controversial approaches to school discipline in the U.S. is the use of zero-tolerance policies. These policies include exclusionary practices, such as office referrals and suspension, which remove students from their classroom and isolate them from the school community. Zero tolerance policies in schools have been shown to have a detrimental effect on all students, particularly Black and Brown students. Skiba et al (2011), for instance, wrote about how these punitive methods cause students to miss critical instructional time and feel less connected to their teachers and peers. 

Zero tolerance policies are embedded in high-stakes accountability structures. As White (2020) states, these policies overly focus on student behavior and the idea that individual hard work is the best way to promote high test scores. They do not foster a sense of community- and relationship- building. While policymakers had positive intentions in promoting a more rigorous and equalitarian experience for students—laying out each infraction and punishment with the intention of applying discipline uniformly across student groups—that is not what has happened. According to the aforementioned research, Black and Brown students were still punished more harshly for the same infractions than were their peers. Thus, the negative consequences of these policies have far outweighed the benefits. 

Many schools are implementing alternative methods of discipline that stress the importance of taking proactive measures to reduce exclusionary practices. In the previous post, I focused on the importance of restorative justice policies as a strong strategy to support children and their development. But there are also multiple alternative models that have been shown to be effective among students of varying ages and demographics. These models focus on relationship development, and staff training, which I will discuss below. Specifically, the three other models include: School Wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS), Monarch Room, and Inclusive Skill-Building Learning Approach (ISLA). In short, the idea that zero tolerance is the only approach is unsupportable.

The Great Divergence In State Education Spending

When we talk about K-12 education spending inequality, we're usually talking about differences in resources between high- and low-poverty districts within states. But spending levels also vary between states, and that too matters for overall spending inequality in the U.S. How has this changed over the past 25 years? In other words, does K-12 spending vary more between states than it did a quarter century ago?

Let’s take a look at one simple way to visualize this trend. In the graph below, each blue circle is a state, and there one set of 51 states (including D.C.) for each year between 1993 and 2018 (the horizontal axis). On the vertical axis is total current spending in each state, predicted for a district in each state with a 10 percent Census child poverty rate (the graph is very similar regardless of poverty level). These spending levels also control for regional wage variation, district size, and population density, all of which affect the “value of the education dollar.” This allows for a better comparison between states (e.g., it costs more, on average, to hire teachers in Connecticut than in Alabama). The red plus signs within each year represent the unweighted average spending level across all states. These data are from the School Finance Indicators Database.

Our focus here is on the “spread” of states (blue circles) within each column (i.e., within each year). A larger spread, of course, represents greater variation (and, roughly speaking, more interstate inequality). The trend over time is a bit striking.

The Uncertain Short-Term Future Of School Growth Models

Over the past 20 years, public schools in the U.S. have come to rely more and more on standardized tests, and the COVID-19 pandemic has halted the flow of these data. This is hardly among the most important disruptions that teachers, parents, and students have endured over the past year or so. But one of the corollaries of skipping a year (or more) of testing is its implications for estimating growth models, which are statistical approaches for assessing the association between students' testing progress and those students' teachers, schools, or districts. 

This type of information, used properly, is always potentially useful, but it may be particularly timely right now, as we seek to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic affected educational outcomes, and, perhaps, how those outcomes varied by different peri-pandemic approaches to schooling. This includes the extent to which there were meaningful differences by student subgroup (e.g., low-income students who may have had more issues with virtual schooling). 

To be clear, the question of when states should resume testing should be evaluated based on what’s best for schools and students, and in my view this decision should not include consideration of any impact on accountability systems (the latest development is that states will not be allowed to cancel testing entirely but may be allowed to curtail it). In either case, though, the fate of growth models over the next couple of years is highly uncertain. The models rely on tracking student test scores over time, and so skipping a year (and maybe even more) is obviously a potential problem. A new working paper takes a first step toward assessing the short-term feasibility of growth estimates (specifically school and district scores). But this analysis also provides a good context for a deeper discussion of how we use (and sometimes misuse) testing data in education policy.

School District Spending And Equal Educational Opportunity

The fact that school districts vary widely in terms of funding is often lamented in our education policy debate. If you think about it, though, that’s not a bad thing by itself. In fact, in an ideal school funding system, we would expect to see differences between districts in their spending levels, even big differences, for the simple reason that the cost of educating students varies a great deal across districts (e.g., different student populations, variation in labor costs, etc.). 

The key question is whether districts have the resources to meet their students’ needs. In other words, is school district spending adequate? In collaboration with Bruce Baker and Mark Weber from Rutgers University, we have just published a research brief and new public dataset that addresses this question for over 12,000 public school districts in the U.S.

There is good news and bad news. The good news is that thousands of districts enjoy funding levels above and beyond our estimates of adequate levels, in some cases two or three times higher. The bad news is that these well-funded districts co-exist with thousands of other school systems, some located within driving distance or even in the next town over, where investment is so poorly aligned with need that funding levels are a fraction of estimated costs. To give a rough sense of the magnitude of the underfunding, if we add up all the negative funding gaps in these latter districts (not counting the districts with adequate funding), the total is $104 billion.

Re-Imagining School Discipline: A Plea To Education Leaders

In many large urban school districts, there are more security employees than counselors. In the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) system, for example there is one security guard for every 147 students, while the counselor-to-student ratio is 1:217. In addition, based on 2015-16 data, Groeger et al. (2018) found that Black students in DCPS were 15 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers (nationally, Black students were four times more likely to be suspended). In short, many students are not getting the emotional and mental support they need as they go through our schools. Instead, as exemplified by these staffing ratios, too many students are affected by punitive, militaristic methods of discipline, which may not only have negative consequences for the students who are disciplined, but for their peers as well (Perry and Morris 2014).  

A commonly used discipline approach, which used to be known as “zero tolerance,” was to discipline all students who didn’t follow the expected “rules.” Zero tolerance policies proliferated in public schools as a reform to help manage student behavior, using a “quick fix” method. Weaver and Swank (2020) define zero tolerance as “policies…[that] include exclusionary practices (i.e., office referral, suspension, expulsion) that involve the removal of the offender from the context of the incident and isolating the student from others involved and their school community.”

Unfortunately, as Skiba et al. (2011) show, these policies have created negative experiences for students and have disproportionately affected Black and brown students. Because they are implemented for even minor infractions, such as dress code violations, these policies don’t work and can actually cause harm to our students. Zero tolerance policies were designed to create a method of tracking student behavior, but this militaristic approach did not set students up for future success. Instead, these policies increase suspensions and expulsions, and also contribute to reduced engagement, loss of instructional time, and heightened dropout rates (Jones 2018). We are not giving students the opportunities to fail in our presence.