Briefly Stated: April 26, 2023

April 25, 2023 8 min read
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Mich. Retention Law Carried Out Unevenly For Black, Poor Kids

Another study, another example of how Black and poor kids don’t get the same treatment as other students in the education system.

In this case, the setting is Michigan. Even if their reading performance was equally subpar on standardized tests, Black and low-income students were more likely to be held back in 3rd grade than their white and wealthier peers.

That research finding comes after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, signed a bill repealing the retention requirement in late March.

Although it will no longer affect students in Michigan, more than 20 states have similar retention policies, raising questions about uneven implementation elsewhere.

“While Michigan’s retention mandate is on its face neutral to economic and racial status, we see this disproportionality in the implementation of retention,” said Andrew Utter, a doctoral student in education at Michigan State University and an author of the paper.

In 2016, Michigan became one of 22 states that require students who can’t read at grade level repeat 3rd grade. At the same time, the state boosted intervention support for struggling readers.

Students who didn’t meet a cutoff score on the state test would be held back, though schools and parents had the option to draw on “good-cause exemptions” for some English-learners and students with disabilities. Parents who didn’t think retention was in their child’s best interest could also opt out.

Researchers found significant racial and economic differences in the policy’s effects. In 2020-21, its first year of implementation, Black students and economically disadvantaged students were more likely to score below the state cutoff and become eligible for retention.

But even among students who scored below the cutoff, there are disparities in whether they were held back or promoted to the next grade via an exemption. Black students were 2.2 percentage points more likely to be held back than retention-eligible white students, while economically disadvantaged students were 3.3 percentage points more likely to be held back than their peers from wealthier families.

A few other patterns emerged, too. Though boys were more likely to be eligible for retention than girls, girls were more likely to be held back.

Lawmakers Are Targeting How Teachers’ Unions Collect Their Dues in Some States

There’s a new legislative effort tied to teacher pay that’s advancing through statehouses this spring—eliminating payroll deduction services.

In many places, teachers who want to be a union member can sign up to have their dues automatically deducted from their paychecks. The service is a convenience for both teachers and their unions, but Republican lawmakers in at least five states are trying to get rid of or limit that option.

Legislators say it’s not necessary for school districts to be involved in financial transactions on behalf of unions. But teachers’ unions say that adapting to these measures will require a lot of time and money and could hurt membership numbers. They also point out that many of these bills exclude conservative-leaning unions, like those for police, and target teachers’ unions, which typically support Democratic politicians.

“It’s a roadblock they’re trying to throw up,” said Eddie Campbell, the president of the Kentucky Education Association. “It’s an unsubtle attempt to try to silence the political opposition that we have as an association.”

The legislation is part of an ongoing conservative effort to weaken teachers’ union influence in schools. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that teachers do not have to pay “agency” or “fair share” fees if they’re not union members—eliminating a major source of revenue for the unions and making it easier for teachers to leave them.

Since then, legislation and litigation have further targeted teachers’ unions.

During this legislative session, bills to stop or limit payroll deductions were introduced in Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, vetoed such a measure, but lawmakers overrode the veto in late March. The law took effect immediately for teachers. It has exceptions for police and firefighter unions.

Finding another method to collect dues “is a very minor inconvenience,” said Rusty Brown, the Southern director for Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank, who argues that automatic bill payments are increasingly easy to set up.

Using a Curriculum Rich in Arts, History, Science Leads to Big Reading Improvements for Students

The more kids know about the world, the better they can grasp what they’re reading. That’s the gist of a new study that shows dramatic increases in the reading scores of students taught a literacy curriculum rich in the social studies, science, and the arts.

A team of researchers at the University of Virginia, the University of Notre Dame, and Auburn University studied what happened when schools took that approach.

On average, the students that used the Core Knowledge Sequence framework scored a statistically significant 16 percentile points higher on end-of-year state tests than a control group that did not, after controlling for such factors as race and gender.

The researchers set up their experiment in Colorado. After a lottery, they ended up with two randomly selected groups of students: One that got into nine charters that used Core Knowledge and one where students who didn’t get spots at the charters went to other schools. The researchers followed these children through 6th grade between 2010 and 2016.

Most of the schools in the Core Knowledge-using sample were predominantly middle- and high-income. But in the one school that served mostly low-income families, the effect sizes were even larger in reading. The students in this school also outperformed their peers in math.

To David Grissmer, the lead author of the study, the results suggest strong evidence for the idea that a curriculum based in general knowledge can improve reading comprehension. Still, he said, it’s possible that other factors influenced students’ scores.

The framework was developed by the nonprofit Core Knowledge Foundation and is based on the work of researcher E.D. Hirsch. It has come under criticism from some educators and commentators who say that it overemphasizes Western history and literature and white, male historical figures.

“The asterisk I would put is, the schools you’re comparing to aren’t using culturally responsive curriculum,” said Callie Patton Lowenstein, a bilingual elementary teacher in the District of Columbia.

Larry Berger, the CEO of Amplify, which sells the associated curriculum, said it is “dramatically more diverse” now than the Core Knowledge Sequence was in its original form.

Title IX Proposal Rules Out Full Ban on Trans Athletes

It’s been a conundrum. How do you keep sports fair for both cisgender and trans girls? The Biden administration has come up with a proposal that appears to try to achieve that balance.

Under a proposed change to Title IX regulations, schools would be unable to categorically ban transgender students from joining athletic teams consistent with their gender identity. But they would be able to limit trans athletes’ participation in some circumstances.

The proposed rules would specifically prevent schools from adopting a “one-size-fits-all eligibility criteria” for sports, says the U.S. Department of Education.

Still, schools would be allowed to bar transgender youth from playing sports consistent with their gender identity if the student’s participation would make it difficult to achieve fairness in competition, safety, or any other stated objectives of the sport. That would have to happen on a case-by-case basis and in a way that minimizes harm to any students who can’t participate in a sport, according to the Education Department.

The department said it expects elementary and middle school students would be able to play sports that align with their gender identity while some limitations may be imposed at the high school and college levels.

The rules would also require schools to consider varying competition levels, such as varsity, junior varsity, and no-cut teams, and varying skills required for different sports.

“Clarifying about the blanket bans being discriminatory is huge because it will have an impact on so many state laws that have blanket bans right now on the books,” said Shiwali Patel, a lawyer at the National Women’s Law Center.

But groups like the law center may want to see more explicit language about what circumstances would prevent a trans student from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity, she said.

2022 Was a Record Year For Efforts to Ban Books

Book banning seems to have turned into a new national pastime.

Attempted book bans and restrictions at school and public libraries set a record in 2022, says a report from the American Library Association.

More than 1,200 challenges were compiled by the association in 2022, nearly double the then-record total from 2021 and by far the most since the ALA began keeping data 20 years ago.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, who directs the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “The last two years have been exhausting, frightening, outrage-inducing.”

The new report not only documents the growing number of challenges but also their changing nature. A few years ago, complaints usually arose with parents and other community members and referred to an individual book. Now, the requests are often for multiple removals and organized by national groups such as the conservative Moms for Liberty, which has a mission of “unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.”

Last year, more than 2,500 different books were objected to, compared with 1,858 in 2021 and just 566 in 2019. In numerous cases, hundreds of books were challenged in a single complaint. The ALA bases its findings on media accounts and voluntary reporting from libraries and acknowledges that the numbers might be far higher.

Librarians around the country have told of being harassed and threatened with violence or legal action.

Caldwell-Stone says that some books have been targeted by liberals because of racist language—notably Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but the vast majority of complaints come from conservatives, directed at works with LGBTQ+ or racial themes, such Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer.

Bills facilitating the restriction of books have been proposed or passed in Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Texas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, among other states.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Sarah Schwartz, Staff Writer; Libby Stanford, Reporter; and Madeline Will, Assistant Managing Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2023 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated


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