Briefly Stated: January 12, 2022

January 11, 2022 8 min read
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U.S. Surgeon General Urges Action to Ease Mental-Health Crisis

It’s rare for the nation’s top physician to issue a public-health advisory. After all, they’re reserved for significant challenges that demand the nation’s immediate attention. Well, there is one—beyond COVID-19—and that’s the “youth mental-health crisis,” says U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.

Indeed, the data are alarming. The national average of weekly emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts among teenagers jumped nearly 40 percent in February and March of last year compared with the same months in 2019.

Murthy’s 56-page report, issued December 2021, attributes the recent decline in mental health to the pandemic’s high death toll, economic instability, isolation from friends and family, and a pervasive sense of fear that marked the turn of the decade.

“It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public-health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place,” Murthy writes in the report.

Although the pandemic intensified the mental-health issues affecting children and teenagers, the surgeon general makes it clear that COVID-19 did not create them. The report cites a 2020 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that found 1 in 3 high school students and half of female students reported “persistent feelings of sadness and loneliness”—an increase of 40 percent from 2009 to 2019.

Social media and popular culture bear responsibility, the report says, bombarding teenagers with messages telling them they’re “not good looking enough, popular enough, smart enough, or rich enough.” The surgeon general urges social-media companies, whose business models are designed to maximize user-engagement time, to prioritize the public’s health and well-being during product development, “even at the expense of engagement, scale, and profit.”

Slow progress addressing myriad social crises—climate change, income inequality, racial injustice and inequity, gun violence, and the opioid epidemic—also contributes to poor mental health among young people, it says.

The report includes a number of recommendations for schools to adopt to help mitigate youth mental illness: educating staff on how to recognize behavioral changes that indicate mental health needs and expanding evidence-based social and emotional learning programs.

Many Principals, Newer Ones in Particular, Say They Want to Leave the Job, But Will They?

Is a principal exodus likely in the next few years?

A survey from the National Association of Secondary School Principals shows P-12 school leaders are feeling the weight of nearly two years of the pandemic and those pressures and other factors are forcing many to consider quitting.

The stress and workload from dealing with COVID-19, staffing shortages, bureaucratic demands from above, and—a newer concern—threats from parents and community members over COVID-19-mitigation measures are behind that thinking.

A quarter of principals said they plan to leave in two to three years, according to the survey, released in December 2021, while one-third said they plan to exit in four to six years. Of those mulling their departure, 92 percent said the pandemic factored to some degree into their thinking.

On the flip side, nearly 70 percent said they would continue in school leadership until they got a better offer, while nearly 3 in 4 disagreed with the statement that they planned to leave the principalship as soon as they could.

“This survey shows that the principal pipeline is becoming increasingly fractured at all levels, in every region of the country and in all school types,” said NASSP President Gregg Wieczorek. “Recruiting and retaining school leaders will become even more difficult, if more is not done to support educators in our schools.”

A big cause for concern is the share of new and early-career school leaders who say they may not hang around for the long run. Just over half of principals with four or fewer years on the job said they did not intend to remain in school leadership until they retired.

Overall, 35 percent of principals said they’d leave education as soon possible if they got a higher paying job, with early-career principals, veterans, men, and those working in high schools more likely to move on.

Still, it’s unclear that many principals have actually followed through. A RAND survey, released in August, showed that both principal and teacher turnover were on par with previous years.

Biden Administration Revives DeVos-Era Questions About Sexual Misconduct by Educators From K-12

The Biden administration has had a change of heart.

After scrapping questions about allegations of sexual misconduct by K-12 staff from a 2021-22 data collection, only a month later it’s decided to reinstate them.

The U.S. Department of Education last month said it was withdrawing the proposed Civil Rights Data Collection and issuing a new one for public comment that includes questions about alleged sexual assault and rape.

The department said it reversed course after “further reflection” but provided no additional explanation. News that the Biden administration wanted to stop collecting the information stirred opposition from conservatives, who charged that the move amounted to covering up such incidents in schools.

It is unusual for the department to withdraw and revise a proposed Civil Rights Data Collection before the end of an initial 60-day public-comment window. The window for public comment has now been extended until Feb. 11.

The questions asking districts for information about allegations of sexual misconduct by school staff, as well as outcomes related to these allegations, were included in the data collection by the Trump administration for the 2020-21 school year.

How schools respond to and seek to prevent sexual misconduct has been a controversial and painful topic in the K-12 world for years. In 2018, roughly 1 in 3 administrators said an employee had reported sexual assault or harassment to them, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey. However, the same survey found the vast majority of educators did not think sexual harassment and assault were especially common in their workplace.

In 2019, the Chicago district agreed to overhaul its policies governing its response to sexual violence and harassment, after a federal investigation found major shortcomings.

Due process rules governing the circumstances in which teachers lose their jobs can also vary significantly by state.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made combating sexual assault and rape in schools a top priority. She spoke out in late November against the Biden Education Department’s proposal to strike the questions about allegations of sexual misconduct, calling the move “sickening.”

White, Male Characters Still Dominate Children’s Books

Judging by a new study about educational materials, opponents of exposing students to various racial and gender perspectives have little to fear.

Turns out, those materials don’t reflect the diversity of the nation’s schoolchildren, and many works that do feature characters of color reinforce stereotypes.

The research review, published by New America, a left-of-center think tank, analyzed more than 160 studies and published works on representation in children’s books, textbooks, and other media dating from the mid-20th century through the present.

Over the past decades, children’s media have changed, said Amanda LaTasha Armstrong, a research fellow in New America’s Education Policy Program and the author of the report. More races and ethnicities are represented in children’s books now, and male/female gender representation has moved closer to equal.

Even so, the review found that white characters still dominate children’s media. That holds true within picture books, children’s literature, and many textbooks. Female characters are also underrepresented, though there has been an uptick over time.

“We’re also having more representation from communities of different racial and ethnic groups, but there’s still a very clear disparity,” Armstrong said.

The review comes at a time when there’s increased national attention on what children are reading in school. In recent months, parents and school board members in some communities have mobilized in attempts to ban books that address race and gender, claiming they are divisive or sexually explicit. And a slew of state laws restricting how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in the classroom have also affected schoolbooks.

When people of color and women are present in children’s media, their portrayal varies widely.

Bloomberg Pledges Millions to Expand Field of Charters

A longtime champion of charter schools has upped his game.

Former New York City mayor and one-time Democratic presidential candidate Michael R. Bloomberg has announced a $750 million campaign to expand student enrollment in charter schools, pay for new facilities, and train teachers and principals who work in them.

The five-year plan, announced by Bloomberg last month, aims to increase charter enrollment by 150,000 students and will focus on 20 metro areas, including New York City. The initiative will also support research into charter schools and prioritize help for educators of color “so charter school leadership can accurately reflect the diversity of their students.”

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed describing his strategy, to be overseen by Bloomberg Philanthropies, Bloomberg said he wants to counter COVID-19’s effects on students and fill the gap left by what he describes as traditional public schools’ failures since the pandemic began.

Bloomberg’s foundation didn’t name names, either of the other districts that will get funding or the local and national organizations it says it will partner with.

He is launching his initiative at a time when enrollment in charters appears to have grown. In September, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reported that 240,000 new students enrolled in charters during the 2020-21 school year—a 7 percent year-over-year increase.

Meanwhile, the overall enrollment of public schools, including charters, dropped by 1.4 million students during the 2020-21 school year, according to an Education Week analysis from last summer, as the pandemic continued to affect daily operations.

But the charter alliance cautioned that it was “premature” to draw conclusions about why exactly charter enrollment rose while overall public school enrollment dipped.

Supporters say the growth in charter school enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic reflects many parents’ desire for more education options during the pandemic and dissatisfaction with how many traditional public schools responded to the virus.

Sarah Schwartz, Staff Writer; Denisa R. Superville, Assistant Editor; Tribune News Service; and Andrew Ujifusa, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated


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