Education

Briefly Stated: August 23, 2023

August 22, 2023 9 min read
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Millions of Students Across the Nation Are Missing School

Since the start of the pandemic, schools have lost track of untold numbers of students. Even those who are enrolled, though, often aren’t showing up.

Across the country, more than a quarter of students missed at least 10 percent of the 2021-22 school year, making them chronically absent. Before the pandemic, only 15 percent missed that much school.

All told, an estimated 6.5 million additional students became chronically absent, according to data compiled by Stanford University education professor Thomas Dee in partnership with the Associated Press. The data come from 40 states and the District of Columbia. Absences were more prevalent among Latino, Black, and low-income students.

Absent students miss out not only on instruction but also on other benefits schools provide: meals, counseling, socialization. They are also at higher risk of not learning to read and eventually dropping out.

“The long-term consequences of disengaging from school are devastating. And the pandemic has absolutely made things worse and for more students,” said Hedy Chang, Attendance Works’ executive director.

In seven states, the rate of chronically absent kids doubled for the 2021-22 school year, from 2018-19, before the pandemic. Absences worsened in every state with available data.

Kids are staying home for myriad reasons—finances, housing instability, illness, transportation issues, school staffing shortages, anxiety, depression, bullying and generally feeling unwelcome at school, experts say.

And the effects of online learning linger: School relationships have frayed, and after months at home, many parents and students don’t see the point of regular attendance.

For people who’ve long studied chronic absenteeism, the post-COVID era feels different. Some of the things that prevent students from getting to school are consistent—illness, economic distress—but “something has changed,” said Todd Langager, who helps San Diego County schools address absenteeism. He sees students who already felt unseen, or without a caring adult at school, feel further disconnected.

Based on the few states that have released 2022-23 data, it seems the chronic-absence trend may have long legs. In Connecticut and Massachusetts, chronic absenteeism remained double its pre-pandemic rate.

A Kentucky District’s Bus ‘Disaster’ Highlights the Shortage of Drivers Across the Country

Kentucky’s largest district canceled six days of classes because of a transportation meltdown on the first day of school.

It took hours for drivers to drive newly configured routes. The last Jefferson County student arrived home at 10 p.m. Some parents spent hours trying to locate their children. Some state Republican lawmakers threatened to intervene. And UPS offered to aid the district in planning routes.

The chaos was sparked by a problem that has affected schools around the country: A shortage of bus drivers and increasingly complicated school schedules have fueled a push to do more with less, testing the logistical limits of transportation departments.

Jefferson County had enough drivers for about 950 routes 10 years ago, but it can only staff 550 routes this year to transport about 67,000 students, Superintendent Marty Pollio told reporters, calling the first day a “disaster.”

“We are in a situation—not just here but nationally—where we are going to have to start making decisions about who we transport, when we transport, and who we don’t transport,” he said. “Because going from 950 to 550 in a few short years is nearly impossible.”

After days of triage, the district planned a staggered restart and put some stopgap measures in place.

In previous years, driver shortages led to some late buses and last-minute cancellations of routes, district officials said. Seeking a more predictable experience this school year, the district reduced the number of routes, moving some bus stops farther from students’ homes to make the rides more efficient and consistent. They contracted with a software company that uses artificial intelligence to design a new busing plan.

But district officials added new stops to the plan after it was drafted, not accounting for the time those revisions would add to individual routes, Pollio said.

Districtwide magnet programs, increased school choice options, and the use of an airport-like hub system to break up the longest bus rides have also made routes more complex over time, reducing the margin for error, he said.

Biden Administration Outlines How Colleges Can Pursue Racial and Ethnic Diversity

Colleges and universities can seek out racial and ethnic diversity in their student enrollments. They just have to change some of the ways they’re doing it.

So says, in more formal terms, a “Dear Colleague” letter issued last week by the Biden administration in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking down affirmative action in admissions.

“For institutions of higher education, this may mean redoubling efforts to recruit and retain talented students from underserved communities, including those with large numbers of students of color,” says the informal guidance from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice.

The six-page question-and-answer document emphasizes that colleges may still seek a diverse student-applicant pool by using “targeted outreach, recruitment, and pipeline or pathway programs.”

“The court’s decision ... does not require institutions to ignore race when identifying prospective students for outreach and recruitment, provided that their outreach and recruitment programs do not provide targeted groups of prospective students preference in the admissions process,” the document says.

Higher education institutions may direct outreach and recruitment efforts toward schools and districts that serve predominantly students of color and those of limited financial means, the document says. They may also target districts or schools that are underrepresented in the institution’s applicant pool by focusing on such factors as geographic location, low-performing schools or schools with high dropout rates, large percentages of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, or historically low numbers of graduates being admitted to the institution, it says.

Pathway programs, such as mentoring and summer enrichment, may also be used as tools to improve diversity among admissions applicants, the document notes.

The guidance also embraces Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s language in his majority opinion that “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”

Use of Facial Recognition Technology Questioned

When it comes to the use of facial recognition technology for security in schools, the “risks may outweigh any documented benefits.”

That’s according to a new report by the New York State Office of Information Technology Services. The state education commissioner plans to consider the report and its recommendations in determining whether to approve the purchase or use of biometric identifying technology in public schools.

The ITS report echoes concerns from some state lawmakers and the New York Civil Liberties Union that the technology constitutes an invasion of privacy, promotes an environment of surveillance, and falls short in accurately identifying females and people of color. The report also suggests facial recognition technology has limited value as a security tool.

“Many claims have been made about the potential of FRT security systems to make schools safer, but little information is available about real-life situations where technology detected and helped prevent violent incidents,” the report says. “It is noteworthy that, regardless of the type of technology used, a school’s staff must have some type of forewarning that an individual should not be allowed access to a school for any technology to be effective.”

In 2020, the New York state assembly passed legislation that led to a statewide moratorium on the use of biometric identifying technology in schools, pending a state study of the implications. When the moratorium was signed into law, the Lockport City school district was required to shut off its newly acquired, $2.7 million facial and object recognition-based camera system.

“There are other, more proven ways like hardened doors and resource officers that are better vehicles for making sure that kids are safe in school,” State Assembly member Monica Wallace, a Democrat who co-wrote the legislation, said this month.

Now that ITS has delivered its assessment of biometric identification technology in schools, Wallace said she’s reading the report with an eye on possible follow-up legislation to outlaw use of the technology for security purposes in public schools.

Arkansas Won’t Give Credit for AP Studies Course

Go ahead and teach the course. It just won’t count.

That’s what the Arkansas education department has to say about the Advanced Placement African American Studies course. Unlike Florida, the state won’t forbid what’s become a controversial matter but won’t count it toward graduation credit.

The College Board said six schools in Arkansas were expected to offer the course this year, including Little Rock Central High School, which is covered with discussion of the Little Rock Nine and their role in school desegregation efforts. The Little Rock district announced last week it will offer the course regardless.

Florida banned the pilot in January, claiming it defied state law that restricts how topics of race can be taught. Scholars then criticized an edited framework the College Board published in February.

In response, leaders within the College Board said they sought additional revisions this summer in time for the second pilot run, in which more than 700 schools across the country would participate.

About the same time that Florida was banning the course, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Republican, ordered a review of policies that “promote teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies,” such as critical race theory. That review included the AP African American Studies course.

“The AP African American Studies pilot course is not a history course and is a pilot that is still undergoing major revisions,” the Arkansas education agency said. “Arkansas law contains provisions regarding prohibited topics. Without clarity, we cannot approve a pilot that may unintentionally put a teacher at risk of violating Arkansas law.” It went on to say that the pilot course did not offer an end-of-year exam last year and “the course may not articulate into college credit.”

More than 200 colleges and universities nationally have already signed on to provide college credit for a passing grade on the exam, including the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, the College Board said.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Evie Blad, Senior Staff Writer; Ileana Najarro, Staff Writer; Tribune News Service; and Mark Walsh, Contributing Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2023 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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