Briefly Stated: February 2, 2022

February 01, 2022 9 min read
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H.S. Graduation Rates Dip Across the U.S. in 1st Year of COVID

Chalk up another potential loss to COVID-19. High school graduation rates dipped in at least 20 states after the first full school year disrupted by the pandemic, ending nearly two decades of nationwide progress toward getting more students diplomas, an analysis shows.

The drops came despite at least some states and educators loosening standards.

The results, according to data obtained from 26 states and analyzed by Chalkbeat, are the latest concerning trend in American education, which has been rocked by a pandemic that left many students learning remotely last year and continues to complicate teaching and learning. Some fear that the next several graduating classes could be even more affected.

In 2020, when schools shuttered for the final months of the school year, most states waived outstanding graduation requirements and saw graduation rates tick up. But the picture was different for the class of 2021. In 20 of 26 states that have released their data, graduation rates fell. Comprehensive national data will likely not be available until 2023.

The declines were less than a percentage point in some states, like Colorado, Georgia, and Kansas. Elsewhere, they were larger. Illinois, Oregon, and North Dakota saw rates drop 2 points, and Indiana, Maine, Nevada, South Dakota, and West Virginia saw declines of at least 1 point.

Where rates increased, growth was modest. Florida’s, for instance, was a tenth of a point after a decade of steady progress.

“We do have to be concerned that grad rates are down and that some number of kids that earned a diploma, they’ve learned less than prior years,” said Robert Balfanz, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education and the director of a research center focused on high school graduation. “What we’re going to have to learn in the future is, how great is the concern?”

In 2001, an estimated 71 percent of students who started 9th grade at a public high school graduated four years later. By 2019, that number had jumped to 86 percent, although the nation’s way of calculating that has changed slightly.

A recent Brookings Institution study concluded that the gains were a result of new federal pressure on states and schools and found little evidence that the long-term improvements were due to lower standards.

Vulnerable Students and Districts at Greater Risk as Natural Disasters Become Ever More Frequent

They’re more likely to attend resource-poor schools. They’ve been affected more by the pandemic. And now, federal research says, students of color and economically disadvantaged children are more likely to be touched by natural disasters.

Turns out, school districts that have relied on emergency aid to recover from floods, fires, and storms tend to serve large shares of such students.

While disaster aid proved beneficial to many communities, K-12 officials also reported significant disruptions to students’ mental health, school infrastructure, and other problems stemming from destabilized housing environments and parental job loss, the Government Accountability Office report finds. These leaders told the GAO that federal assistance sometimes fell short of meeting schools’ long-term needs, leading to delays and other problems for recovery efforts.

And in contrast to their wealthier counterparts that were also affected by natural disasters, such districts reported prolonged academic declines among disadvantaged students.

The new research underscores the challenges faced by schools and the nation in general. The cost of natural disasters in 2021 exceeded $145 billion, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported, marking the third-highest tally on record.

Such difficulties are likely to become more acute for those districts and students in the coming years, based on trends driven by climate change and growing concerns that natural disasters have become more destructive.

A U.N. report from last year said natural disasters occurred three times more often than five decades ago. And a World Meteorological Association study reported a fivefold increase in disasters from 50 years ago.

For the new GAO report, school officials said that several years after storms like Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Hurricane Dorian in 2019, students “still had significant unmet psychological and emotional needs” and “were still working through trauma.” And in some cases, districts still experienced shortfalls that affected their recovery efforts, even after getting federal assistance and tapping into insurance policies.

Sweating the Deadline for Using COVID Funds, School Leaders Ask Government for Extension

Here’s the money. Now, spend it—and make it fast.

As much as school districts appreciate the $195 billion in federal pandemic aid they received in 2020 and 2021, many have had a tough time following that demand.

A coalition of nearly three-dozen school-, health-, and environmental-advocacy groups, led by AASA, the School Superintendents’ Association, sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona last month asking the department to consider extending the deadline for spending the funds on construction and capital-improvement projects.

The current deadline for spending all the money is September 2024—more than four years after the pandemic began taking a toll on school operations and causing all manner of disruption for students and staff alike.

School administrators say they want until December 2026 to spend the federal funds on improving ventilation; fixing roofs, windows, and doors; and modernizing classrooms to account for the oncoming effects of climate change. After all, districts are competing over the same finite set of contractors and materials, leading to price hikes and shipping delays that are likely to persist for a while.

Facilities have long been a major area of need for the U.S. school system, whose buildings are increasingly dilapidated as state and local funding for construction falls billions of dollars short of the necessary work. The federal government last year dangled the possibility of dedicated funding for school infrastructure as part of President Biden’s Build Back Better proposal, but those funds ultimately fell out of negotiations for the still-languishing bill.

The list of districts’ priorities for federal funds is long and varied: everything from expanded instructional programming and curriculum materials to increased salaries and recruitment bonuses for educators; new laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots for students; and masks and other personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Determining how much schools have spent so far is nearly impossible. Some districts may have committed to investing in salaries, though others are wary of using the funds for ongoing initiatives or positions, which they might have to cut.

LGBTQ Issues at the Top of Banned-Book Requests

A quick quiz. What subject tops the list of most challenged books in classroom and school libraries? If you guessed LGBTQ characters or issues, you’d be right.

Other topics that are frequently challenged include sex and sexuality that is not violent or abusive, critical race theory, ethnicity/race, racial inequities, gender, and nontraditional family structures.

Those are among the findings from a new, nationally representative survey of teachers, principals, and district leaders conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in December.

Surprisingly, though, despite the headlines, almost two-thirds of school and district leaders have not fielded any requests to ban or remove books over the past three years. But 16 percent said the number of requests to ban books has increased since 2019.

The survey results are in line with the American Library Association’s annual list of the top 10 most challenged books in K-12 schools, colleges, and libraries.

In 2020, the novel Melissa by Alex Gino—previously published as George—was the most frequently challenged for its depiction of a young transgender girl. The list was otherwise dominated by books about racism, including Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice, a children’s book about the aftermath of a police shooting of a Black man.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said in November statement that there has been an “unprecedented volume of challenges” to books in fall 2021.

Teachers (57 percent) and principals (63 percent) also have topics they’d like to see banned, according to the EdWeek Research Center survey. Sexual violence or abuse tops the list, followed by white power/nationalism and critical race theory. And 17 percent of educators say that books featuring LGBTQ characters or issues should not be allowed in schools.

Va. Governor Urges Parents to Report ‘Divisive’ Lessons

Be very careful, teachers. You don’t know who may be watching or what might happen to you should you be engaging in “divisive practices.”

Virginia’s new gubernatorial administration has established an email tip line for those who want to snitch on educators who, in the tipster’s view, are involved in such practices.

During a radio appearance last week, on a conservative talk show, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, provided an open-ended explanation about what counts as divisive practices, and he discussed racial issues like white privilege and critical race theory.

“We embrace teaching all history, the good and the bad,” he said. “But practices like teaching that one group is inherently privileged and another is a victim, or that in fact people today should be held responsible for sins of the past, these are the kinds of teaching practices that exist in our schools, and we are going to get them out.”

Youngkin said he believes the tip line will improve the state’s education system. Reports will be cataloged, he said, and used to gain insight. But he didn’t explain who is monitoring the email or evaluating the complaints or what steps are taken after a report is received.

Nor did his spokeswoman shed any light on how the tip line will operate or what will happen if someone is found to run afoul of permissible teaching practices. She instead released a written statement about serving all Virginians.

“We are asking for input right from parents to make sure that we can go right to the source as we continue to work to make sure that Virginia’s education system is on the path to reestablished excellence,” the governor said.

Youngkin also said that Attorney General Jason Miyares was equally committed to protecting parents’ rights.

On the campaign trail, Youngkin frequently voiced his opposition to teaching so-called divisive concepts in public education. He issued an executive order on his first day in office specifically banning critical race theory from being taught in schools.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Mark Lieberman, Reporter; Tribune News Service; Andrew Ujifusa, Assistant Editor; and Madeline Will, Assistant Managing Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated


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