Tim Daly: What if we have the narrative of pandemic learning loss wrong?

Parenting is a constant set of failures, small and big, only outweighed by all the love and joy. When I think about parenting moves where I would like a mulligan, technology and screens are at the top of the list. So recently in Chicago with Tim Daly we were brainstorming the trends on learning loss various data are highlighting. When he mentioned screens I asked, more please? Tim’s CEO of Ed Navigator. Here’s his take:

By Tim Daly

Until recently, there has seemed to be a consensus about the pandemic and education: remote schooling was ineffective. Teachers struggled to teach and students struggled to learn. The longer students spent at-home, the more substantial were their learning setbacks. One study after another found this to be true.

But do difficulties associated with school closures capable explain all of the recent declines in student achievement? Especially after the most recent NAEP results found only a tenuous relationship between school re-opening patterns and state performance, I worry that we may be overlooking other factors. After all, worrisome trends were surfacing before the pandemic. 

In 2020, national results from the Long-Term Trend Reading Assessment showed that scores for our lowest performing nine year-old readers – those at the 10 percentile of the distribution – had dropped precipitously to compared to the last time the test was administered, in 2012. The pandemic couldn’t be the cause because students completed the assessments just before it began. 

In the first decade of the 2000s, the story was quite different. Lower performing readers were improving rapidly and chipping away at the gaps between themselves and their higher performing peers. It felt like a success story. By 2012, though, the gains plateaued. Due to budget cuts, the Long-Term Trend Reading Assessment was not offered again for eight years. Then, in 2020, the average score for 10thpercentile readers plummeted. There was no comparable drop for high performers at the 75th or 90th percentiles.

Why? Several plausible explanations have been suggested, from the lingering effects of the 2008 economic crash on lower income households to the introduction of Common Core. But I can’t stop wondering about one in particular: screen time. 

Screen time for American children has been on the rise for years. According to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, the average child in 1997 aged 0 to 2 years experienced 1.32 hours of screen time. By 2014, such children averaged over three hours. Researchers reported significant differences across demographic groups, with more screen exposure for infants and toddlers whose families had lower incomes and levels of parental education.

A separate study examined screen usage among children aged 9 and 10 using data collected between 2016 and 2018. The authors found average screen time was 3.99 hours per day. Notably, over an hour of that time was spent streaming videos, which makes sense given the technological innovations that had made streaming more accessible by 2016.  YouTube launched in 2005. The iPhone arrived in 2007. And in 2010, Apple supercharged the market for kid-friendly tablets with its introduction of the iPad. The balance of screen time began shifting from big screens (televisions, computer monitors) to little ones – and children born around the time of the 2008 financial crash were the first generation to have widespread interactions with these tools during their early years.

One can’t help but notice that during the same span when screen time surged – particularly for less-privileged children – we found ourselves facing significant new challenges with struggling readers.

A connection between screen time and literacy performance shifts seems plausible. Young children who spend hours streaming videos each day are not interacting with adults or forming rich conversation habits that build a foundation for literacy. We know that high screen time was not distributed evenly – rather, it was more common in households where students already faced higher risks in learning to read. 

Why does this matter? For me, it raises the possibility the traditional narrative of the pandemic is incomplete. If students are struggling because schools closed, the best solution is not just to get students back to in-person learning but to replace the lost instructional time with extended days/years, high dosage tutoring, and so forth. That’s largely what we’ve been doing.

But there’s an alternative explanation that encompasses more than the pandemic. Under this scenario, by 2020 we had been living through more than a decade of innovation in personal electronic devices that put screens literally in the hands of young children for the first time. Parents eagerly embraced the flexibility of entertainment and learning options – and some kids ended up on screens far more than pediatricians advised. Fewer children were reading for fun, with increasing numbers not doing it at all. All of this happened outside of school.

Then, at a moment when the effects of screen time were already becoming evident for a subset of learners, kids began to spend more time on their screens than ever before. School was screens. Free time was screens. What else was there to do? By April 2020, the average US child was on YouTube for 97 minutes per day.

So, what does screen time look like today? Data from Common Sense Media suggests that screen usage remained at elevated levels through 2021, when most schools were open full-time, and that video streaming was now the most preferred screen activity for tweens and teens. Once again, children in lower income households spent far more time on screens.

Meanwhile, newly released results for the Long-Term Trend Reading Assessment show a continuation of pre-pandemic trends, with 10thpercentile nine year-olds suffering substantial losses compared to 2020 while the highest performing students seem barely affected by the pandemic. If the pandemic forced all students to learn remotely for some length of time, why did only some students learn substantially less?

It’s not a slam dunk case. There are reasons to doubt that screen time is behind our present literacy struggles. For one thing, math scores showed a similar pattern of general improvement for 10th percentile performers until the 2012 administration of the Long Term Trend exam, then a drop in 2020 and a larger drop in 2022. Because math learning generally happens in school and tends to be less influenced by what’s happening at-home, this may suggest that the root of the problem is instructional rather than screen-related.

Nonetheless, the issue of rising screen time for educationally vulnerable children deserves more consideration. We may discover that a key strategy for getting our students back on-track can be executed only through partnership with parents who have greater ability than schools to influence how much time their children spend on devices and what they’re accessing. 

Tim Daly is CEO of EdNavigator.

Elections & Fish

Thank a veteran – and their family – today.

I don’t have a lot for you on the election – they’re still counting in some key races. But it’s close. Given all the ways they had to win a slight Senate majority, the most surprising thing to me is the position the Republicans are in there. Before the election I noted candidate quality was an issue for the Republicans and also,

My hunch is the Rs get the House – though with precision redistricting even waves aren’t what they used to be. The Senate is a toss-up and you can’t count the Dems out as some candidates seem to be in front of the headwinds. But in the end you have to give the edge to the Rs because they have more paths to control and the issue environment is rotten for the Dems (arguably made even worse by the party’s positioning on a host of issues including schools).

The counterfactuals are impossible but it does seem the Republicans should have been able to pick up some seats this cycle – NH, PA, GA, and maybe AZ given the gaps between the governor and senate races in those states? They blew it. The American people want their politicians to be more normal and do things like follow election law, that seems clear. I also am surprised the House is as tight as it is, figured they’d be able to scoop up a few more given the environment. The popular vote margin relative to outcome is noteworthy – especially given some of the rhetoric these past few years. Redistricting seems to have helped and hurt the Democrats in different places. I was definitely wrong about abortion effect – it was not baked in. I wonder though, in their heart of hearts if a lot of Republicans would have been willing to trade this outcome for getting rid of Roe?

In terms of voter behavior and demographics, we’ll have better data in a few months. This wasn’t the kind of election where all the trends are immediately obvious.

Wednesday at AEI I discussed the election results and education along with Bethany Little, Derrell Bradford (who was dressed in muted colors, read into that what you will), and Rick Hess. Masterfully moderated by Nat Malkus. We hugged. It’s here and on C-Span.

In Ed Week, Rick asked me some questions and I answered. Among other issues we talked about why fear of getting dog-piled leads outcomes like Tuesday night.

A few election night (week? month?) things to note. State legislative changes are a big deal here. Also, as we’ve talked about some around here, Ron DeSantis’ policies are not as unpopular as you heard on Twitter. His win was convincing and Democrats will have to parse it for lessons. His personal style can be off-putting but that’s obscuring an effective politics that could be an enormous bear trap for Democrats come 2024 – particularly on some social / culture issues.

Around the country a bipartisan group of governors was re-elected. Colorado’s Jared Polis, like DeSantis, by a big margin – he is someone I would watch and a longtime education player. Former state board member for one thing. Several Democrats who won Tuesday night support school choice and charters – keep an eye on that as the producer-consumer tension in the Democratic Party spills into view again. Low-key Josh Shapiro was very matter of fact about it. Overall a good night for school choice across a range of red and blue states.

For Democrats this election was a reprieve, not a vindication. How they handle that and what they takeaway will tell you a lot about how 2024 will shape up.

To expand on one point I made in the Hess interview, and my constant hope against evidence plea for political sanity: The culture war issues did not cut cleanly either way. I’m still learning results, it doesn’t look like school board races broke any particular way either (though it does look like some normies won in San Francisco, which is not nothing and the LA mayoral race is a signal).

Look, if these culture war totems were the irresistible force some people think they are then Tudor Dixon would have performed better in Michigan. But these issues will continue to matter. Across a lot of evidence it seems a majority believes schools should be inclusive for adults and kids but we don’t need to teach gender theory in grades K-3 or have schools conceal gender transitions from parents. They want spending on schools not cuts but also want improvement. They want honest history about both where this country has betrayed its values and where we’ve made remarkable progress. They don’t believe teaching about race means privilege bingo and privilege walks. They bristle at ideas from the left and right about using state power to go after parents about what are fundamentally family decisions. In other words, they reject false choices and extremism and take a common sense view to a lot of questions that raise the temperature on Fox and MSNBC. The culture wars can be won, and they will be by whichever party resists its activist class and a lesser of two kind of approach and instead forthrightly seizes that center first.

And of course the bigger deal? Addressing learning loss.

In the meantime, fish.

Here’s longtime education hand, consultant, and great human Julie Corbett from this past summer. Fishing offshore in New York and at a lake in Vermont. You’ve seen the fishing Corbetts around here a lot over the years.

You can never say it too much, take a kid fishing:

And, and this is important. Pitchers and catchers report in 94 days:

Besides the Corbetts, here are hundreds of pictures of education types and fish from over the years. Send me yours!

Enjoy the weekend.

The Most Important Election Of The Year!

A couple of items and an election forecast.

I sat down with MDRC’s Leigh Parise and William Corrin to talk about personalized learning and the ed scene on the MDRC podcast.

Today at 5pm ET Bellwether’s Alex Spurrier and I will be on Twitter Spaces discussing what we’re looking for tonight – besides whiskey – and some education implications.

On Wednesday morning, I’ll be at AEI to discuss election implications. You can also watch online. I’ll be discussing the same with PPI on a webinar later this week. And I’m doing an interview with Rick Hess for Ed Week on…yes…the same issues.

It doesn’t look good for the President’s party. Except for the 2002 midterms, which were exceptional, that’s basically the pattern so far this century. Voters are frustrated. Add to that President Biden’s weak approval numbers, serious inflation, which contra Joy-Ann Reid, is not some talking point Republicans cooked up but rather an issue that’s terrifying for working class and low-income Americans (and no fun for anyone else). And issues like crime and immigration where the Democrats are not effectively messaging and that’s a tough climate. I initially thought the abortion issue was baked in, then started to think maybe it might have more impact. But it in the end it seems more baked in. Meanwhile, gambits like student loan relief are backfiring with voters.

My hunch is the Rs get the House – though with precision redistricting even waves aren’t what they used to be. The Senate is a toss-up and you can’t count the Dems out as some candidates seem to be in front of the headwinds. But in the end you have to give the edge to the Rs because they have more paths to control and the issue environment is rotten for the Dems (arguably made even worse by the party’s positioning on a host of issues including schools). To put it in card playing terms, the Rs have many more outs. Get ready for HELP Committee Chairman Rand Paul.

Some of the best pre-reading is this exceptional polling by Pew. They do great work on issues that are not the horse race du jour but the conditions those horse races are being run in. Here’s a midterms overview. And here’s a look at crime. What is striking is the disconnect between what voters are most concerned about and what many Democrats chose to emphasize.

Although education is not a big factor in the midterms, outside of some atmospherics the Dems are still struggling to outrun, here’s a Pew deep dive on education. And the outcome of the election will definitely impact education from governor’s races to how national policy is shaped.

There is a through line I would draw between the crime data and education. Democrats have struggled to talk about crime. On social media you hear all the time that talking about crime is a racist dog whistle. Yet Black voters are more concerned about crime than any other racial or ethnic demographic. Voters want to hear candidates talk about taking it seriously and understand you can be for criminal justice reform and addressing crime at the same time. It’s not the choice it’s made out to be on Twitter. (It’s as though no one learned anything from the Boudin recall or Glenn Youngkin’s victory.) Only a third of white Democrats say crime is very important – yet 8 in 10 Black voters do. You see that same sort of blinkered vision play out in how things are discussed in our sector especially around issues like discipline but also more generally in terms of choice and a host of social issues. For both Democrats and the ed reform “movement,” success hinges on breaking out of the echo chambers.

What will I be watching tomorrow night for a sense of how it’s going? Early in the evening there are three House seats in Virginia that are competitive, held by Democrats Spanberger, Luria, and Wexton. Spanberger in particular is worth watching, good member of Congress, middle of the road. But she’s running in a redrawn district (where I live) and is up against a tough challenger. How the R challengers do in these three races will say a lot about how strong any wave might be. It will also be a signal about whether the diverse coalition Glenn Youngkin put together to win in Virginia (more diverse than a lot of people seem to realize) is durable or was a 2021 post-Covid or unique candidate one-off.

The Georgia Senate race is a clear bellwether, sorry, for candidate quality versus partisan momentum. And the Kemp – Abrams margin versus the Senate contest is an indicator to watch. And obviously Pennsylvania and Ohio Senate races – though PA could really drag out. Ohio is worth watching because objectively Republican J.D. Vance should be running further ahead of Rep. Tim Ryan than he seems to be. Is that because Ryan is running a masterful campaign, the polling is off, or is it because there is more Dem strength out there than the polls are picking up? I’ll also be watching margins in New York. Michigan’s gubernatorial contest does have some education themes and is also a good indicator of wether there is a real wave or a mixed verdict at the state level. Down ballot the Georgia state chief race bears watching.

Later in the night watch Colorado. How will popular Colorado Governor Jared Polis fare relative to Senator Michael Bennet, who is in a tough race. (I don’t understand why Polis is not in the presidential conversation more?) And what is the Ron DeSantis margin of victory in Florida? Some of his policies on education are more popular among Democrats than you might think. Does that show up at the ballot box?

The race for Arizona governor is another one to watch. Assuming her polling lead is real Kari Lake will immediately cut a school choice profile. She also has some wacky election ideas. Lake’s connections to choice and MAGA election denial will become a tension in education circles. The contest for governor in Wisconsin also has education implications, particularly for choice in the nation’s first choice state.

On the West Coast, the Oregon governor’s race is not normal. And Senator Murray in Washington state is in a tighter race than she should be. A small thing I noticed in October was the First Lady heading out to Washington to campaign for Murray. That’s not the kind of place you deploy a popular First Lady (who has a day job teaching and a tight schedule) given this year’s map unless you needed to. That race has education implications given Murray’s seniority and keen interest in education (she chairs the Senate committee that handles education and will likely become the ranking Democrat or chair of the powerful appropriations committee if she wins on Tuesday). Wes Moore is also one to watch on education. He seems certain to become governor of Maryland. You can add up the margins in all the close races and not come near his margin in the polls. Expect that to be a bright spot for the Dems.

After the votes are counted and we get better data, keep an eye on what the Republican coalition looks like. Democrats continue to have a stranglehold on the Latinx vote but are struggling with Hispanic voters and Hispanic elected officials. Can the Rs continue to make inroads with Black voters? How many non-white Republicans win in various races? As we’ve discussed, in the elite parts of the education sector, especially the non-profit education sector, you’ll sooner spot a unicorn than someone who appreciate that the only demographic group Trump lost ground with from 2016-2020 was white guys. It’s the inverse of the narrative. That’s a trend worth watching because it has education implications and school choice is a part of it. It’s noteworthy that statewide Democratic candidates this cycle embraced school choice in a way that would have been heretical just a few years ago.

Bottom line? When Democrats are struggling in the Pacific Northwest and Snoop is endorsing the former Republican in the LA mayoral race, well that tells you voters are running out of patience and the atmosphere is tough. That’s a problem considering some of the people on the ballot this year and their views on elections. But don’t despair, Democrats. Even if the election goes poorly you still have a powerful hole card: The Republicans.

Elliot Regenstein On NAEP Next Steps

After the long term trend NAEP was released last year a few folks offered their takes here including Sandy Kress, Denise Forte, Morgan Polikoff, and Marguerite Roza. I’m not going to repeat that because I’m not sure how different responses would be after last week’s state NAEP release. I was discussing that release with Elliot Regenstein and at some point said, that would make a good post, write it? And he did. So here’s a guest blog from Elliot:

After last week’s release of new NAEP scores, Andy wrote about NAEP in the Bellwether newsletter titled “Meeting the Moment After NAEP.” He pointed out that one of the overlooked stories of NAEP was the increase in the number of students performing at the “below basic” level.  He describes these children as “the students we’re most concerned with here at Bellwether.” They’re in fact the students many of us are most concerned with – and while the new NAEP scores show incremental expansion of that category, they don’t actually show a fundamental change in the dynamics of the overall education system. 

In my new book, Education Restated, I talk about how the education system has been failing to meet the moment for too many students … for a long, long series of moments. To be clear, the book doesn’t offer any specific insights about the latest NAEP scores, nor are its strategies focused on improving NAEP scores; I don’t want to commit misNAEPery. But moments like these cause a lot of policymakers and pundits to jump up and say, “Let’s respond to this crisis by doing the thing I already proposed doing before the crisis.” Forgive me, please, for being part of that chorus; my book did just come out, and I couldn’t resist.

One thing the NAEP scores have already sparked is a whole set of conversations about what it takes to catch kids up when they’re behind. But for years the blind spot of the accountability movement has actually been the years when we could prevent kids from getting behind in the first place: birth through third grade. Our entire federally-driven school accountability system focuses on what happens after third grade – but as the song says, by the time you hear the siren it’s already too late. 

And here’s the problem. We have a lot of data on what happens after third grade, and what it tells us is that about 15% of school districts are providing kids with 1.1 years of growth per year. If that can be sustained throughout a child’s career, it’s amazing. But that also means that if a cohort of kids is more than a year behind at the end of second grade, even those high-performing districts won’t have that cohort caught up by the end of high school. And as we’ve now learned, the number of kids who are falling behind early in their academic careers is only growing.

So in my book, I propose a few policy strategies aimed at helping the children who need the most help: 

  • Refocusing education accountability to include the years before third grade – not by expanding testing into younger years, but by taking emerging best practices in early childhood accountability and expanding them upward. Specifically, it means not just looking at outcomes but also looking at the quality of teacher-child interaction. Which, as a pleasant side effect, provides much more actionable feedback than standardized test scores.
  • Paying teachers what they’re actually worth. And by that I mean not just paying them more (although that’s part of it); I mean acknowledging that the market for teachers treats as equivalent jobs that really aren’t. Is the candidate pool for a math position at a high school where most children are years behind the same as the candidate pool for a first-grade teacher at a high-performing school?  Of course not. But if those schools are in the same district, then odds are that those jobs would be listed for the same salary.  There’s a reason we’ve had the exact same teacher shortages for decades, and it’s that we’re systematically paying too little for certain teaching roles relative to others.
  • “School choice” debates are often framed as a tug-of-war between traditional public schools and some combination of charters or vouchers. But that frame is far too narrow, and has emerged only because district boundaries – and attendance boundaries within districts – have been far too limiting on family choice. And where inter-district choice programs have emerged they’ve too often been an escape hatch for wealthy families, not a real strategy for helping the students who need it most. Rethinking the meaning of political lines and the incentive structures of choice would give families more options to help their children succeed.

As I said, these proposals aren’t inspired by the NAEP results, nor are they focused on the needs of the cohorts included in the most recent NAEP scores. But to some degree they’re inspired by moments like these, when various factions within the education community push for their preferred solutions. My goal in writing the book was to try to find some areas of potential agreement among politicians and pundits who think they’re on opposing sides of these issues (and many others). Because of those historical divides, political moments like these have a tendency to produce activities that are reflexive and cosmetic, rather than thoughtful and systemic. My hope is that at least some of the energy we’re seeing now will be directed toward longer-term solutions – and that if the issues addressed in my book end up on the table, I hope that its recommendations will prove useful. 

Elliot Regenstein is a partner at Foresight Law + Policy.

Affirmative Action Is Probably Doomed – But It’s Not

Did anyone here go to a state school?

Today at the Supreme Court arguments were heard in two cases involving race-based affirmative action, one from North Carolina and a higher profile case against Harvard. A lot of people are saying it’s the most important case(s) of the court’s current term. I guess I disagree with that in the sense that an important case seems to me like one where the outcome is in question. Given the composition of the court today, and how these cases moved to the high court, this one seems over except for the part where the justices vote. In 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said affirmative action would be gone in 25 years. As in many other ways she was ahead of her time.

The outcome of today’s case will certainly be symbolic. It will fuel arguments about our politics and about the court (though unlike Dobbs this will not be a countermajoritarian decision). I’m not sure, however, how substantively important it will be.

Much of American history is a story of laws being passed on behalf of Black Americans and then those laws being ignored. The importation of slaves was banned in 1808, but it continued right up until the eve of the Civil War.* When Union troops left the South after Reconstruction, in addition to ushering in a new era of racial terror and formal racial caste system, all manner of laws and constitutional protections were ignored and flouted. We’ve made remarkable progress, of course, but these problems are not a relic of the 19th-Century. As anyone who has opened a newspaper in the last decade knows, reckoning with this part of our history – the good and the bad and the present impact – is something we still struggle with.

But, somewhat paradoxically, I’m less concerned about these affirmative action cases than some are because I expect the law to be somewhat ignored here, too. That’s because a few things are true.

First, college admissions are opaque and affirmative action is already somewhat curtailed today. Unless you go to a purely test-based system, which no one does, a lot of factors go into admissions. At public universities factors like where a student is from in a state or if they are out of state, choice of major and school, and diversity all factor into these decisions. Admissions are not a decision of are you in or out overall, so much as how does an applicant stack up in various pools of applicants- for instance against other out-of-state engineering applicants at a public university. It’s even more opaque for private schools – especially elite privates like Harvard. Besides, most colleges in this country take anyone who applies, selective schools are a small fraction of what’s on offer and not the experience for most Americans who attend college. Affirmative action gets a lot of attention in part because it’s about the elite schools we fetishize.

A ruling striking down affirmative action will probably rein in the excesses but not be the death knell for racial and ethnic diversity in higher education that some fear simply because it’s hard to say why a lot of decisions are made. And also, of course, the country is diversifying anyway.

Another reason the impact might be more limited is because, second, Americans don’t like formal race-based affirmative action but value diversity. When affirmative action is put to the test at the ballot box it doesn’t do well – even among non-white Americans. Most recently, the defeat of affirmative action in California in 2020 should have made that abundantly clear. Yet at the same time, in general, Americans do like diversity – of all kinds it should be noted not just race and ethnicity. There are some methodological problems with this poll from earlier this year (party ID and question wording for instance), but it does broadly point in the direction that people value diversity. The poll also underscores how elite advocacy groups need to engage with the broader sentiments in this country – which are again not hostile to diversity but don’t like what seem to be rigid formal systems for achieving it. In their hearts a lot of Americans want diversity, in their heads they are with Hayek and John Roberts and resist what they see as government sanctioned discrimination. Figure out a way to talk about diversity and preferences that works better at a corner bar than a faculty lounge and you will have a forward moving politics a lot of people can get behind.

Progressive affirmative action proponents are in an awkward spot here because they are stuck simultaneously arguing that affirmative action isn’t really much of a plus factor so it’s not a big issue from a constitutional standpoint and that, also, if we get rid of it then the results will be catastrophic. Conservative opponents are stuck wishing away some of the realities of American life today – including legacy admissions and a profoundly unfair K-12 system that assigns the poor to schools by their zip code.

Finally, we know race and class are not the same thing. In plenty of data there is evidence race exerts a special leverage. You see that right here in our K-12 sector. But there is a broad overlap between race and class – and low-income Americans of all races and ethnicities face a lot of structural barriers to opportunity and social mobility. Class-based affirmative action and class-based politics more generally do offer a lot of promise – even if they’re not fashionable in elite spaces. They also bring the promise of more viewpoint diversity. There is some evidence that states that have banned affirmative action have seen declines in underrepresented students, but it’s unclear how much that could be offset by robust class-based measures and other strategies focused on student success. There is plenty of evidence that affirmative action is benefiting economically advantaged students. And obviously we might get serious about improving K-12 schools.

This brings us to Rick Kahlenberg. Rick’s a progressive’s progressive. He and I have disagreed, for instance, on what we should expect from controlled choice plans based on economics relative to charter school plans that increase the supply of public schools. He wrote an admiring biography of influential and iconoclastic teachers’ union leader Albert Shanker that arguably minimized how Shanker’s vision fell short in the meat grinder of union politics. Agree or disagree on issues, Rick’s thoughtful and gets up in the morning trying to figure out how to make America work for more Americans. But as a proponent of economic affirmative action Rick’s on the side of plaintiffs in this case – literally, he was an expert witness as the Harvard case moved through the courts. Whether you agree or disagree with him about that, I’d urge you to read this essay he just wrote in The Atlantic about affirmative action. Among other things, it shows that underneath our partisan and largely tribal debate about affirmative action the current policies aren’t working all that well anyway. Perhaps this decision will usher in new ideas and approaches that move us closer to a more inclusive American across more lines of difference. It does seem like it’s time to try something new.

In any event, Rick’s approach here is a model for principle, for thoughtful disagreement, and also for heterodoxy and how well-intentioned people can look at some questions and come to different conclusions on the best path forward. In general we need more of that if we’re going to get anywhere.

*I think I have recommended it before but just in case, Shemekia Copeland’s “Clotilda’s on Fire” is a callback to the last slave ship known to have arrived on these shores and a highlight of her strong 2020 “Uncivil War” album. One of the enslaved people on that ship became the focal point of a controversial Zora Neale Hurston book.

Let’s Try Plan B. Telling Parents The Truth?

Too many “stakeholders” are treating pandemic education impacts as a public relations crisis rather than an educational disaster.

In The 74 I take a look at the NAEP results. As you may have heard, they’re not good! 

In particular, the rising number of students at the “below basic” level – which even hardened combatants about the NAEP achievement levels acknowledge is an insufficient level of learning to succeed outside of school – is staggering and has long term implications. 

But I try to look at something else, a predicate to addressing all this. Why are we having so much trouble leveling with parents about what’s going on? It’s as though our educational leaders decided to take their cues from Covid-era public health communications. 

This is less Red – Blue than it might seem. The NAEP results don’t lend themselves to easy political narratives, it’s a pretty widespread disaster. So perhaps that’s a chance to reset the conversation? Probably not given the climate. But we have to try. Coming clean with parents is the first step toward a more robust response to ensure we bounce back, ideally stronger. It’s also just the right thing to do. There’s no good argument for the noble lie right now.

From The 74:

The disaster and inequity of pandemic policies is now in clear focus. The state NAEP scores released Monday underscore and quantify just how much of a catastrophe pandemic-era school policy and practice was for students — especially the youngest and those already struggling in school. These data build on and confirm previous evidence we saw through the NAEP as well as results from the ACT and data from vendors such as NWEA and Curriculum Associates. This much converging data is hard to brush away. As the president himself might say, it’s a big ******* deal. 

Schools have obfuscated about what learning loss even means. Insufficient attention to helping teachers communicate effectively with families means parents are left confused about reading and math achievement. Some professional development focuses on helping teachers distract attention from objective measures of reading and numeracy. Leading newspapers have misled readers about whether any of this even matters. States like New York and California have dragged their feet on releasing test score data, while in other places, school officials are minimizing the importance of standardized exams.

The overall fecklessness, irresponsibility and almost total attention to politics and public relations rather than kids surprises even cynical observers of the sector. The noise-to-signal ratio is difficult for families — who have a lot on their plate besides this — to sort out.

Entire column is here at The 74.

Gates Is All About That Base…Ten. Plus The Ongoing Freelance Problem…

Coming Attractions

On Nov. 9, I will be at the American Enterprise Institute with a few other edufolks to analyze the election and its education impacts. This excites and delights a certain kind of edunerd:

Should be a good discussion, some real education implications. With the important caveat that it’s still a few weeks out and there could be surprises the polls are missing — at this point it looks like the fundamentals are still the fundamentals. Gas costs a lot, almost everything costs more, and the President’s approval rating is stuck in the low 40s. The median voter, including the median Democratic voter, seems to care more about these issues than the average MSNBC viewer or Twitter user does. Democrats might catch a break in some Senate races because of the Mad Lib quality of Republican candidate recruitment. Overall, however, it’s a tough year for the incumbent party made tougher by not talking about the economy when the voters really care about, you know, economic conditions (and instead focusing on a bunch of things they really don’t.)

Figures

Sun Tzu reminds us that “water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows” so “the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe for whom he is facing.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation just announced it’s going all in on math.

Privately, a lot of people are grumbling about this for various reasons: ideological fights around math content and pedagogy, philanthropic skepticism, political concern, and questions about this emphasis overall. I don’t know how much of that you’ll hear or the foundation will hear because there is not a lot of return in criticizing one of the largest philanthropic entities in the world, no matter how much everyone says they want honest feedback.

It’s not out of the blue. They’ve been telegraphing this shift- and doing a lot of math work already. And at one level, it’s not surprising that an emphasis on math — and math at scale — would appeal to an executive who thinks in terms of numbers and scale (and that this would then appeal to the team supporting him). In some ways, this brings the foundation’s education giving more in line with a scale approach they take with regard to global public health.

It might do some good. I am increasingly convinced math — and probability and other related themes — is keenly linked to concerns about our civic discourse, mis-and disinformation, and our dysfunctional politics. And, obviously, we have a huge pandemic recovery challenge — that will come into even starker relief next week.

Still, there’s an elephant in the room that’s hard to miss. It seems odd and paradoxical that at a time we’re focused on structural issues in this country in terms of opportunity, equity, and economic mobility, that the most powerful entities shy away from tackling those issues head on and try to find more oblique ways in.

Freelance Work

We’ve talked a few times about how much of the concern about DEI or other culture war issues stem from teachers freelancing with stuff they pulled off the internet. It’s bread and butter for social media,

When I’ve written here that a lot (though not all) of the stuff animating social media around “CRT” or gender or whatever is teachers freelancing, this is in part the kind of thing I’m referring to. That account’s bread and butter was not teachers talking about the formal curriculum and it was not made up. It’s why the way through a lot of this is better curriculum not leaving it to teachers.

So here’s an activity from a suburban D.C.-area high school.

Besides wondering exactly what happens to the kids who identify as being in the ruling class, a couple of things jump out. For starters, it’s good to make people aware of tribal history in Virginia. Virginia had an Indian boarding school, for instance, though those schools are generally taught as a thing that happened out West. But the tribes on this sheet don’t represent tribes that were present in the Chesapeake watershed — where this school is located. You can’t download or cut and paste “cultural competence.” Likewise, Latin@ is not going to be a term many Hispanics identify with if 5% or fewer ID use Latinx. And deciding Hispanic (Latin@) is a race not an ethnicity seems … a little presumptuous for a public school? This is why teachers need quality curriculum (and quality training and PD, natch).

Finally, there’s a basic “Sir, this is a Wendy’s” problem. This whole exercise was a project in a high school Spanish class.

In her newsletter this morning Nellie Bowles noted how the rush to new sex ed curriculums fueled by the insatiable desire to show the world allyship is creating a backlash that’s bad news for gay kids. (We talked about this backlash last week in the context of the rush to have schools get in front of families on LGBT questions.) This sort of thing, too, may originate with good intentions but nonetheless alienates people from their public schools. There’s plenty of real estate between making sure all identities are respected and included in the life of a public school and a politically all-thumbs approach like this. Public school advocates had better find their voice to make that clear or the drain of students and political backlash will continue. There, too, maybe don’t take your cues from MSNBC and Twitter.

Tensions – We Got ‘Em! (We Just Don’t Talk About It)

Years ago Rick Hess and I wrote an article for PDK about the inherent tension in where to focus school improvement efforts. Rick takes a utilitarian position that focusing on high achievers is key to American competitiveness. I think from a societal standpoint and competitiveness gaps and inequity are where to focus. Thing is, Rick is not indifferent to gaps and I care about high achieving students and supporting their learning – and have no problem with elements in accountability systems to incentivize that. (The US News High School Rankings address both gaps and advanced course taking).

The point of the article was that there are tensions there we have to discuss and think about. We wrote it together precisely because we didn’t agree but wanted to see the issues discussed because that leads to progress and new ideas. Policy can’t be “and a pony” on everything no matter how much advocates may claim or wish it so. There are tensions and tradeoffs, always. That nuance gets lost, of course, in the bullshit that passes for debate and advocacy in our sector. We have to be able to talk about textured things without them becoming weaponized.

That’s all by way of saying this Jessica Levin essay is worth your time. Jessica is a long time and sharp observer of and player in the sector. In this new essay in Ed Post she asks several important questions about unintended consequences of the gap closing effort. That’s something we should talk about more and where reasonable people can disagree on policy in good faith. Jessica writes,

It is understandable that raising concerns about how our schools currently are balancing equity and excellence would provoke strong responses among those for whom closing achievement gaps to advance equity is the paramount goal. No doubt, their case is bolstered by our country’s egregious history and current reality: racism and segregation, gaping educational resource inequalities, and widening economic inequalities.

But it’s hard to believe that in the long term, silence on this issue is the path to building a healthy, well-functioning public education system that advances opportunity for all. 

It’s the kind of essay that deserves reading and discussion.

Finally, on this issue of tensions. Last week I had the privilege of spending 30 minutes discussing the equity and innovation tension with Chris Rush and Denise Forte as part of an event New Classrooms (BW client) put together. There are tradeoffs around unleashing innovation and kids falling to the cracks, we discuss how to think about them.

You know what’s not tense? Bob Weir and the National Symphony. Treat your ears:

Friday Fish Pics – Jonathan Harber & Sons

It’s been a heavy week of content, shortchanging kids on learning, balancing rights and inclusion. And it’s been a bit since we had fish pics this year. So let’s end on a light note: Here’s Jonathan Harber and family with some fish.

Harber does, and has done, a lot in this sector. And I’ve featured him and his family of fish slayers here before.

Friday fish what? Irregularly on Fridays we post pictures of education people with fish. Here are hundreds of pictures of education types and fish from over the years. A gentle reminder there is more to life than politics or online life. Get outside – research shows it’s good for you. Even better, take a kid fishing.

The Real Flashpoint In Virginia’s New Transgender Guidelines For Schools? Teacher Rights. Part 2 of 2. 

In Part 1 we talked about the crux issue in the new Virginia transgender guidelines for schools (that a lot of people are dancing around). Is it OK for schools to conceal gender transitions from parents or is that the only way to be affirming for LGBT kids? Outside of exceptional circumstances concealing things from parents and guardians seems untenable and problematic. Some disagree.

That fight is obscuring a more consequential and unsettled question the guidelines point up: What free speech rights do teachers enjoy when it comes to names and pronouns?

The Guidelines Create Two Rights and Point Up an Unsettled One

The model guidelines establish two parallel rights. This is all outlined under Section D, below. If you want your child to be called by a name or pronoun that doesn’t correspond with their student record and biologic sex, you have to notify the school in writing. On the other hand, if you don’t want your child called by a name or pronoun that does not correspond with their student record and biologic sex then that parental right is respected, too. It seems untenable to have one of these rights without the other, the guidance includes both.

This is what is being called outing, but in practice it means if a student wants their public school to do something contrary to their parent’s wishes then unless they are 18 or emancipated the parents have to be involved. There is no affirmative duty to report, but schools can’t conceal what they are doing. Legally, whether you like it or not, we are talking about minors here, who don’t enjoy the rights you may think they do, even as adolescents. There is a note about that in the first post. (You can also get your student’s official records changed, that’s also covered by Grimm, but because these are legal records it requires more documentation than just a note to school).

The relevant section of the proposed model policies

I should note that the polling on parent views here might not be what you think (or what I figured before this question was polled more). Fewer than four in ten parents think teachers should be required to use preferred pronouns. That makes my own view on this, just call people what they want to be called, a minority opinion. This is an example of the work advocates have to do if freedom is going to mean something. The focus on keeping things from parents is not making that work any easier.

As you can see, the guidance also contains an exception (Part 6) stating that teachers and students can’t be required to use pronouns or names that violate their constitutional rights. It doesn’t lay out those rights because it remains uncertain what those rights are in public K-12 settings. The Washington Post editorial board’s hypothetical about teachers belittling students wouldn’t fly under this policy regardless of what a court says on the First Amendment question. In more than a few parts of the proposed guidance anti-harassment and bullying language is laid out. That’s not protected speech in schools. The Post’s example illustrates how the real issues are being buried under an avalanche of hyperbole.

Continue reading “The Real Flashpoint In Virginia’s New Transgender Guidelines For Schools? Teacher Rights. Part 2 of 2. “