Education Briefly Stated

Briefly Stated: February 3, 2021

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February 03, 2021 8 min read
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Global Test Finds Gap Widening in Scores for Students in U.S.

American 4th and 8th graders may be performing in the top quarter of countries in both math and science, but that’s not saying much, so say the initial results of the 2019 Trends in International Math and Science Study.

The test gauges the performance of some 330,000 4th graders in 64 countries and education systems and 250,000 8th graders in 46 education systems.

In the latest administration of the test—before COVID-19 surfaced—most U.S. students proved capable of understanding and applying basic concepts in the subjects. However, their average performance has flattened since TIMSS was last given in 2015. On average, U.S. 4th graders met intermediate benchmarks in math and science—meaning they showed understanding of some aspects of science and could apply basic math knowledge to solve simple problems. But the math score dropped 4 scale points since 2015. Likewise, 8th graders scored on average at the intermediate level in math and science, meaning they showed some understanding of biology and physical science and could apply basic math concepts.

Still, the nation has lost all the ground it had previously gained in ensuring all students had at least “some basic knowledge” in math and science. In 2019, 7 percent of 4th graders didn’t meet this lowest performance level in math, and 6 percent failed to do so in science. Similarly, 12 percent of U.S. 8th graders didn’t meet this lowest achievement level in science, and 13 percent lacked basic understanding of whole numbers and graphs in math. That’s the highest percentage of struggling 8th graders in both subjects since 1999, and it means the United States has a significantly wider gap in scores than other high-performing countries such as Japan, Russia, and the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario. Even tiny Lithuania had a smaller share of students who performed below the lowest achievement benchmark before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated global learning inequities.

TIMSS countries have reported implementing policies to encourage using technology in math and science instruction. At the same time, the data suggest teachers have not received training or support to use technology successfully during their instruction in either subject or grade.

High Court Declines to Hear Teachers’ Appeals for Refunds From Unions for Agency Fees

What you’re hearing from public-employee unions across the land is one big sigh of relief.

And why not? They’ve lost a ton of money since 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court sided with workers who didn’t want to pay collective bargaining fees. But last week, when those workers wanted to be reimbursed for all the money they did ante up over the years, the high court nixed that idea by simply refusing to hear the teachers’ cases.

The court’s action—or inaction—while not a ruling on the merits of the cases, was a practical victory for teachers’ unions and other public-employee labor organizations that faced millions of dollars in financial liabilities if the objecting employees’ claims were revived.

The cases have been pursued with the backing of some of the same union opponents who were involved in the case that led to the court’s landmark decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31.

In essence, the justices ruled that objecting employees could not be compelled under the First Amendment to help fund, through their so-called agency fees, union speech with which they disagreed.

One of the teachers fighting to get a refund—and class action status—for some 30 years of fees paid to the National Education Association and its affiliates was Stacey Mooney.

“No one gets to keep money or property that is taken in good faith but in violation of another’s constitutional rights,” said the Illinois’ teacher’s appeal to the Supreme Court.

She lost in federal district court and in the U.S. Court of Ap-peals for the 7th Circuit. Numerous other federal district and appeals courts were deciding similar cases, with virtually all siding with the unions. In a case out of Ohio, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the unions’ good-faith defense would overcome any retroactive remedy.

Said Alice O’Brien, the general counsel of the NEA: The high court’s “denials should be taken for what they are—the end of the road for the post-line of litigation.”

The court did not comment on the order denying review, but it indicated that Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not take part.

Trump’s Vision of How to Teach U.S. History Abandoned on Day 1 of Biden Administration

In its own way, former President Donald Trump’s short-lived 1776 Commission made history. The commission, whose purpose was to deliver a report on teaching U.S. history, had no historians as members, pulled together its report in a scant month’s time, and was scrapped two days after unveiling the highly contentious document.

The report accused identity politics, and its influence on history studies, of fostering resentment by trying to divide people into separate, protected classes based on race and other characteristics. Instead, the 1776 Commission report said, schools and others who have roles to play in sharing the nation’s history should focus on providing a “patriotic education” that celebrates America’s ideals, its progress, and what unites its citizens, even as people are taught about the nation’s flaws and mistakes. That will help lead to a restoration of American education and a “national renewal,” it said.

On Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, President Joe Biden revoked the executive order that had established the commission, which released its report Jan. 18, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday.

In the waning months of his presidency, Trump used his platform to warn of a “crusade against American history” and threatened schools that adopted a curriculum based on The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which examines how slavery shaped the United States and highlights the historical contributions of Black Americans.

To counter that perspective, Trump created the commission via executive order in November. The group was led by Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, and counted Charlie Kirk, the leader of the pro-Trump political group Turning Point USA, among its dozen members, who clearly viewed the nation’s history through a conservative prism.

The now-defunct commission and its report have no official or mandatory role in what students learn. But the spirit behind the commission could play a role outside the Beltway. In November, for example, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, proposed spending $3 million to focus on “the incredible accomplishments of the American way” in his state.

House Education Chairman Wants Greene Off Panel

The chairman of the House education committee wants a GOP congresswoman who has previously backed conspiracy theories about school shootings to be removed from his committee.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., wants Republican leaders to reverse course and rescind the decision to put Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia on the committee. As his reason, Scott cited Greene’s past support for baseless claims that the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was a “false flag” operation and that other school shootings were somehow staged.“

House Republicans have appointed someone to this committee who claimed that the killing of 14 students and three teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was staged,” Scott said.

By putting Greene on the committee, he added, House GOP leaders were sending “a clear message to students, parents, and educators about the views of the Republican party.”

Recent revelations about Greene’s support for these conspiracy theories has caused an uproar among Democrats in Washington. Greene has also drawn national headlines for her support for QAnon, the name used for a range of conspiracy theories that the FBI has categorized as a domestic terror threat. A spokesman for the congresswoman did not directly address her past comments on social media about school shootings. Instead, he focused on Greene’s support for school choice and reopening schools, among other policies.

Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., announced that he would push to have Greene expelled from Congress. Gun-control advocacy groups have also said that she should resign.

Union Accuses Fla. District Of Spying on Its Teachers

“Be careful what you put on social media. It could come back and bite you.”

That’s an admonition teachers and other adults often convey to students.

District officials in Broward County have turned that dictum on its head, scouring the Facebook pages of teachers working remotely to catch them partying, traveling, and failing to wear masks at a time the educators say COVID-19 makes it too risky for them to return to campus.

One teacher is pictured at her daughter’s destination wedding in Jamaica. Another attended a political rally for Joe Biden. Others were pictured with cocktails in restaurants or enjoying a Disney or beach vacation with family or friends.

The Florida district used about 40 pages of research about remote teachers during an arbitration hearing last month with the Broward Teachers Union, which challenged the district’s decision to end remote work assignments for most teachers.“

If individuals on remote assignment can go to a Biden rally or to Animal Kingdom or to a luncheon, they can safely return to in-person teaching,” Stephanie Marchman, a lawyer representing the district said during the hearing.

From the union’s viewpoint, the effort amounts to “spying” on employees.

“You’re saying if you do something that puts you at risk, you should be at risk at all times,” union lawyer Mark Richard said during the hearing.

“This is a sad day for the Broward County school system. Once you’ve gone to a Biden rally and didn’t practice social distancing, you might as well come to school, increase exposure, and die.”

The arbitrator ruled the district can order teachers back but must turn over information to the union about how decisions are made. Appearances, of course, can be deceiving.

One social-media post showed James Keith Calloway, 58, a teacher coach who had been working remotely, posed in a holiday photo close to others and without a mask. But Calloway said the photo was taken in December 2019, before the pandemic. His brother posted it this past holiday season, leading to confusion.

“I just find it hard to believe [the district] would go to this extent. I really do,” he said.

Corey Mitchell, Associate Editor; Sarah D. Sparks, Assistant Editor; Tribune News Service; Andrew Ujifusa, Assistant Editor; Mark Walsh, Contributing Writer; and Karen Diegmueller, Senior Contributing Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 2021 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated


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