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.

A Recipe For Successful Literacy Instruction

As a former high school English teacher of nine years, I know how daunting it can be to tackle literacy instruction. You stress over the lack of resources. You crave more professional development. You worry about your assessment choices. You question your administrator’s support. On any given day, you have a stream of worries and concerns running through your mind. While many districts rely solely on the ever-changing state and federal literacy mandates to inform their instruction, there are many adjustments and services districts can provide within their own schools and classrooms to support students and teachers.

The infrastructure of school systems contributes heavily to literacy instruction and achievement (Gabriel & Woulfin, 2022). One effective way to support system-level literacy is through a district literacy plan. These plans serve as a way to bring together various stakeholders to form a committee intent on better supporting students and improving literacy practices. When preparing a district literacy plan, stakeholders must use a combination of ALL the following ingredients to create a recipe for successful literacy instruction that promotes student learning.

Vision Statement: A district literacy plan should open with and be centered around a vision statement for learning. The Glossary of Education Reform defines a vision statement as “a declaration that schools or other educational organizations use to describe their high-level goals for the future and what it hopes students will learn” (The Glossary of Education Reform, 2015). Essentially, a vision statement encompasses a district’s belief system about literacy and serves as a guide for their work.

Inequity Is Embedded In School Finance

Our guest author today is Fedrick Ingram, secretary-treasurer of the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers.

Every February, it comes around: Black History Month. It may seem like a feel-good event that has nothing to do with the nitty gritty of school policy and everything to do with uplift. But in my mind, the Black excellence we celebrate and try to nurture this month is the very reason we scrutinize one of the most foundational school issues we face: School finance.

Before I get to that, let me say the obvious: Black history should not be relegated to one month a year. And it should not be limited to predictable recitations of Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver and Martin Luther King Jr. We need to go deeper.

We need to celebrate intellectual luminaries like Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells, Bayard Rustin and Carter G. Woodson—the man who lobbied so hard to establish Black History Month back in the 1920s. And I want to celebrate Black excellence in today’s leaders. People like Rep. Maxine Waters, who has steadily held her ground to protect democracy; Sen. Raphael Warnock, who courageously ran for office in a state unlikely to elect him—and wound up tipping the Senate toward the Democrats by winning a seat once held by a Confederate general; Jason Reynolds, who publishes true-to-life stories that resonate with and engage Black children; and Nikole Hannah-Jones, who gave us the 1619 Project and continues to lift up all the history that has been missing from our classrooms for so very long.

But as much as we have to celebrate, there is still so much more to do. School finance illustrates the point.

The Story On State Literacy Initiatives

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), 21 percent of adults in the United States (about 43 million people) are illiterate or functionally illiterate. Nearly two-thirds of fourth grade students read below grade level, and that percentage persists all the way through high school graduation (Rea, 2021).

While these statistics are alarming, federal and state leaders have been focused on literacy rates for many years. The United States Department of Education (DOE) most recently addressed literacy through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015, which “outlines a direct and sustained approach to improving literacy achievement” (Alliance for Excellence Education, 2017). Specifically, ESSA focuses on two components to support literacy: funding and professional development. For funding, Title II of ESSA includes the “Literacy Education for All, Results for a Nation” (LEARN) Act, which provides competitive grants to states to help local school districts develop comprehensive birth-through-grade-twelve literacy plans.

Additionally, the LEARN Act states that local education agencies must use any grant funds they receive to support high-quality professional development for teachers, teacher leaders, principals, and specialized instructional support personnel. However, ESSA also gives states new flexibility in choosing which indicators they use to measure student performance on state assessments in English Language Arts and Math, as well as how much emphasis to place on each of these measures (The Education Trust, 2017). As a result, literacy policies, laws, and initiatives vary greatly from state to state, given the flexibility permitted by ESSA.

Allied Around Student Success

I see multiple stories published daily about the fragile state of the teaching profession and educators themselves. There is also concerning anecdotal evidence suggesting that the work of other school-related professionals, such as bus drivers, paraprofessionals, and substitute teachers, is also suffering due to stress from the pandemic, which may also be contributing to turnover and educator shortages. What can be most productive at this point would be to refocus on and rebuild the trust between families and educators to help promote student learning.

One thing the adults (and the students) in our schools don’t need right now is an opportunistic wedge being driven between the most natural allies in the cause of student success: families and educators. Rather than focus on problem-solving and communication, there are many stories that are focused on pitting educators and families against each other over teaching practices and materials, which is increasing the stress of teaching and learning just about every day.

I’m not just talking about late-in-the-game advertisements during the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. The work to create distrust between these longstanding partners—educators and parents—rather than nurture communication and collaboration, goes back months and has presented itself in state houses across the country. Leading the effort are state laws that create a climate of shoot-first ask-questions-later when it comes to perceived instructional transgressions. Books are being banned rather than discussed in Texas. The Tennessee Department of Education has instituted emergency rules for financially penalizing districts, and  disciplining or reporting teachers violating  a law  of 14 concepts deemed too contentious by the legislature. Similarly, the New Hampshire Department of Education has created an online form to collect complaints about teachers from parents and students. A growing number of states have introduced or passed laws similar to these in 2021, while other states have plans to introduce similar measures in future legislative sessions.

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.