How To Support Teachers' Well-Being During COVID-19? Prioritize Relationships With Students.

Our guest authors today are Kristabel Stark, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maryland, and Nathan Jones, associate professor of special education and education policy at Boston University. 

As schools around the country get ready to reopen this month, we’ve heard a lot of talk about masks, ventilation systems, tablets, and internet access. But in the midst of these logistical conversations, it’s been easy to overlook the thing that matters most for a successful return to school: teachers.  For teachers, factors associated with COVID-19 have challenged core dimensions of their work. As school gets underway this year, and building and district administrators strategize how to go about rebuilding again in the midst of a pandemic, our research suggests that one action is critical: prioritizing relationship building between teachers and students. We find that, of all of teachers’ daily activities, it is their work with students that is most strongly associated with positive emotions. And, this relationship actually intensified in the early months of the pandemic.

We did not set out to write a COVID paper. In the fall of 2019, we set out to conduct a longitudinal study of teachers’ daily work experiences, including how they budgeted their time across activities and how their emotions varied within and across schooldays. In the study, nearly 250 teachers in two urban school districts completed time diary surveys in which they recorded how long they spent on various activities, who they spent their time with, and how they felt during these activities and interactions.  We wanted to understand how teachers’ emotions were associated with specific professional activities, and how those emotions changed over the course of a school year. But of course, we didn’t foresee that, midway through data collection, a global pandemic would emerge, temporarily transforming the nature of teachers’ work lives and professional experiences.

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 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.

Evidence In Education: Is Supply Meeting Teachers' Demand

In today’s public schools, teachers and administrators are constantly pressured to implement new reforms and initiatives, most of which claim to be research- or science-based. Schools are often viewed as the recipients of new policies and new knowledge generated by research. In So Much Reform, So Little ChangeCharles Payne states “Best Practice discourse lends itself to decontextualized thinking, reducing the problem of urban schooling to a cognitive one: if only our teachers and principals knew how to do it in the Big City...we should spend some time thinking with school people about what those reasons might be rather than just issuing more exhortations from on high” (p. 63). Including educators in the conversation is crucial for a successful rollout of any evidence-based intervention. Additionally, in order to best support our teachers, it is imperative we develop a system for them to have access to evidence-informed practices that are contextualized and can be tailored to their varying needs. 

While there are many problems with the “research to practice” approach, one barrier is that schools are frequently not given enough training, resources, and support to make sense of educational research. Educators need evidence, innovation, and new approaches; after all, much of their job is to constantly adapt their ways of teaching to meet the unique and changing needs of their students. But right now, too many educators are doing this work without the necessary tools to be successful. In this post I would like to sketch out a tool that could improve access to and applicability of research. By access, I refer not only to the ability of finding and downloading journal articles and other sources, but also to having the knowledge to discern questionable research. According to Paula J. Stanovich and Keith E. Stanovich (2003), a failure to discern good and bad research can cause teachers to try new methods that are not strongly supported by peer-reviewed research. Applicability refers to the extent to which research has practical implications for teachers.

One Page Summaries Of Your State's School Finance System

For the past few years, the Shanker Institute has been collaborating with Bruce Baker and Mark Weber of Rutgers University to publish the School Finance Indicators Database (SFID), a collection of finance and resource allocation measures for policymakers, journalists, parents, and the public. 

The State Indicators Database (SID), the primary product of the SFID, is freely available to the public, but it includes about 125 variables. So, even if you know exactly the types of measures you are looking for, compiling the data for a state or a group of states might present a challenge. While we have tried to make the data accessible for non-researchers, we realize that it can still be difficult for a lot of people. 

We have therefore just published 51 state school finance profiles (with help from ASI fellow Lauren Schneider), which pull together a digestible amount of information into one place for each state (and D.C.). You can download the profiles individually or as a group.

How Much Segregation Is There Within Schools?

Our national discourse on school segregation, whether income- or race-/ethnicity-based, tends to focus on the separation of students between schools within districts. There are good reasons for this, including the fact that the majority of desegregation efforts have been within-district efforts. Sometimes lost in this focus, however, is the importance of segregation between districts.

This distinction can be confusing, so consider a large metro area with a central city district surrounded by a group of suburban districts. There may be extensive racial/ethnic segregation of students between schools within those districts, with students of color concentrated in some schools and their White peers concentrated in others. But total segregation across the entire metro area is also a function of segregation between districts - i.e., the degree to which students of certain races or ethnicities are concentrated in some districts and not others (e.g., students of color in the city, white students in the suburbs). In a sense, if we view diversity as a resource, there are multiple "chokepoints" at which that resource is distributed down to the next level—from states to metro areas to districts to schools—and this can exacerbate segregation.

recent working paper provides one of relatively few pieces of recent evidence suggesting that, in addition to racial and ethnic segregation between districts and between schools within districts, there may be an additional important "layer": segregation within schools.

Research And Evidence Can Help Guide Teachers During The Pandemic

This post is part of our series entitled Teaching and Learning During a Pandemic, in which we invite guest authors to reflect on the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic for teaching and learning. Our guests today are Sara Kerr, Vice President of Education Policy Implementation at Results for America, and Nate Schwartz, Professor of Practice at Brown Universitys Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Other posts in the series are compiled here.

Teachers are used to playing many different roles, but this year they are facing the most complex challenges of their careers. They are being asked to be public health experts. Tech support specialists. Social workers to families reeling from the effects of layoffs and illness. Masters of distance learning and trauma-responsive educational practices. And they are being asked to take on these new responsibilities against a backdrop of rising COVID-19 cases in many parts of the country, looming budget cuts for many school districts, and a hyper-polarized political debate over the return to school.

To make any of this possible, educators need to be armed with the best available science, data, and evidence, not only about the operational challenges of reopening that have dominated the news cycle but also about how to to meet the increasingly complex social-emotional and academic needs of students and their families. They dont have time to sift through decades of academic papers for answers. Fortunately, the nations education researchers are eager and ready to help.

Why School Climate Matters For Teachers And Students

Our guest authors today are Mathew A. Kraft, associate professor of education and economics at Brown University, and Grace T. Falken, a research program associate at Brown’s Annenberg Institute. This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of The State Education Standard, the journal of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Over the past decade, education reformers have focused much of their attention on raising teacher quality. This makes sense, given the well-evidenced, large impacts teachers have on student outcomes and the wide variation in teacher effectiveness, even within the same school (Goldhaber 2015Jackson et al. 2014). Yet this focus on individual teachers has caused policymakers to lose sight of the importance of the organizational contexts in which teachers work and students learn. 

The quality of a school’s teaching staff is greater than the sum of its parts. School environments can enable teachers to perform to their fullest potential or undercut their efforts to do so. 

When we think of work environments, we often envision physical features: school facilities, instructional resources, and the surrounding neighborhood. State and district policies that shape curriculum standards, class size, and compensation also come to mind. These things matter, but so do school climate factors that are less easily observed or measured. Teachers’ day-to-day experiences are influenced most directly by the culture and interpersonal environment of their schools.

Interpreting School Finance Measures

Last week we released the second edition of our annual report, "The Adequacy and Fairness of State School Finance Systems," which presents key findings from the School Finance Indicators Database (SFID). The SFID, released by the Shanker Institute and Rutgers Graduate School of Education (with my colleagues and co-authors Bruce Baker and Mark Weber), is a free collection of sophisticated finance measures that are designed to be accessible to the public. At the SFID website, you can read the summary of our findings, download the full report and datasets, or use our online data visualization tools.

The long and short of the report is that states vary pretty extensively, but most fund their schools either non-progressively (rich and poor districts receive roughly the same amount of revenue) or regressively (rich districts actually receive more revenue), and that, in the vast majority of states, funding levels are inadequate in all but the most affluent districts (in many cases due to a lack of effort).

One of the difficulties in producing this annual report is that the our "core" measures upon which we focus (effort, adequacy, and progressivity) are state-level, and it's not easy to get attention for your research report when you basically have 51 different sets of results. One option is assigning states grades, like a school report card. Often, this is perfectly defensible and useful. We decided against it, not only because assigning grades would entail many arbitrary decisions (e.g., where to set the thresholds), but also because assigning grades or ratings would risk obscuring some of the most useful conclusions from our data. Let's take a quick look at an example of how this works.