Briefly Stated: March 8, 2023

March 07, 2023 8 min read
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Early-Literacy Skills of Students Appear to Be on the Rebound

The academic stranglehold of the pandemic looks like it may be loosening its grip.

New data from 43 states show that for the first time since 2019-20, the majority of students in every grade from K-3 are on track to tackle grade-level reading by the end of the year—though no grade has yet matched its pre-pandemic performance levels.

The new data from the curriculum and assessment group Amplify also show that Black and Hispanic students in many grades are improving faster than average, shrinking the academic gaps that had widened during school disruptions.

“It’s not great news in the sense that it’s not that [Black and Hispanic students] are doing better than they were before the pandemic,” said Paul Gazzerro, the director of data analysis for Amplify. “But at least we’re not seeing this achievement gap continue to get amplified,” he said.

“We know that there’s been a lot of time and effort, blood, sweat, and tears put into trying to help these kids who are impacted as well as kids that have come along later who are less impacted,” Gazzerro said, “and it does seem like some of those efforts are starting to pay off.”

Amplify researchers tracked the performance of more than 300,000 students. They compared data from midyear tests taken from 2018-19 through 2022-23.

The results are the latest evidence that elementary students who started school during the pandemic continue to recover academically. Still, many students show holes in foundational skills that become evident as they move to more advanced work.

For example, only 3rd graders, who were in kindergarten at the start of 2020, showed no overall improvement in the number of students on track for reading since last year.

“My guess is that a lot of what’s happening here in the 2nd and 3rd grade data is that [students] really missed working with sounds and understanding how the discrete sounds of the language work, because that would have come in kindergarten and 1st [grades],” said Susan Lambert, Amplify’s chief academic officer.

While more students overall seem ready for grade-level reading, the data also suggest about a third of students continue to read “far behind” where they should be at this point in the school year.

What Motivates Teenagers to Do Better in School? The Chance to Redo Assignments

This is not a meeting of the minds.

What teenagers say will motivate them the most in school—and what educators think those things are—are a far cry from each other.

So say the findings from separate surveys of teenagers and educators conducted by the EdWeek Research Center on student motivation and engagement.

At the top of teens’ list is the opportunity to redo assignments if they get a low grade. Out of more than 20 options given to a nationally representative sample of 1,011 teenagers, that opportunity was selected the most, with 35 percent choosing it.

Incorporating more humor and fun into class, providing more feedback, offering more hands-on experiences, and assigning more schoolwork on topics that are relevant and interesting rounded out the top five answers.

But ask educators—teachers, principals, and district leaders—what they think they could do to better motivate students, and you’ll get very different answers.

The most-cited solution among educators surveyed in January and February was offering more hands-on learning experiences. Fifty-four percent of educators said providing more field trips, lab experiments, maker spaces, and internships was what they or teachers in their district or school could do to help students feel more motivated to do their best.

The second-most selected response, from 45 percent of educators, was showing students how they can use what they learn in future careers. Rounding out the top three was “offer a choice of different ways students can demonstrate they have learned something,” selected by 44 percent of educators.

The surveys identified other discrepancies. For instance, 86 percent of students said they feel motivated to do their best in school right now, but only 67 percent of educators said their students were motivated.

There was one area of agreement: When asked to rate educators’ level of motivation, around 80 percent of both students and educators said that teachers in their school or district were motivated to do their best to teach students.

Employee Morale Is Keeping Superintendents Up at Night, But They Feel More Successful Overall

It’s the stuff of nightmares—staffing shortages, student misbehavior, insufficient resources.

But uppermost in superintendents’ minds these days are employee morale and burnout, a new survey shows, even though leaders generally feel more upbeat about their own careers.

Worries about employee well-being come as superintendents identify staffing concerns as a key hurdle for accomplishing goals, making retention of employees an even more urgent priority.

Those findings are from the 2023 Voice of the Superintendent survey of 198 superintendents from 37 states, released last month by EAB, an education consulting organization.

Years of disruption from the COVID-19 debates and divisive political rhetoric about teachers and the role of public education have made it more difficult for educators, said Georgeanne Warnock, the superintendent of the Terrell, Texas, district.

And there’s not a silver bullet for turning it all around, leaders say.

“There’s not one 100 percent solution,” Warnock said. “There are 100 1 percent solutions.”

In the survey, district leaders were more likely to say they had “moderate or major concern” about low morale and burnout of special education staff, followed closely by teachers in general.

Leaders have tried various strategies to lift employee morale and address systemic concerns—everything from using COVID-19-relief aid to pay for midyear retention bonuses to conducting “stay interviews” to ask employees what they need to remain content on the job.

Warnock has tried strategies of all sizes.

When her district struggled with a substitute teacher shortage, she took turns covering classrooms and used her observations to make improvements around the district.

This year, she surveyed staff and reviewed the findings in focus groups. Drawing upon that feedback, the district plans to switch to longer school days and four-day instructional weeks next year with time for independent student learning on Fridays.

Despite the challenges, superintendents seem to have a more positive outlook this year than they did in 2021-22, with 70 percent saying they feel more successful today than a year ago.

For Poor Schools, Repairs Zap COVID-Relief Aid

The air conditioning gave out as students returned from summer break last year to Jim Hill High School in Jackson, Miss., forcing them to learn in sweltering heat. By Thanksgiving, students were huddling under blankets because the heat wasn’t working.

Along the way, students dealt with broken showers in locker rooms, plumbing issues, and a litany of other problems in the nearly 60-year-old building.

Like other schools serving low-income communities across the country, Jim Hill has long dealt with neglected infrastructure that has made it harder for students to learn. So when the Jackson school system received tens of millions of dollars in federal COVID-relief money, it decided to put much of the windfall toward repairing heating and plumbing problems.

For poorer districts, deciding what to do with that money has involved a tough tradeoff: work on long-term academic recovery or fix long-standing infrastructure needs.

An Associated Press analysis of school district spending plans from across the country found that the poorest districts in each state are far more likely than the richest to spend emergency relief funds on upgrading their buildings or transportation systems.

The data in AP’s analysis came from education market research firm Burbio, which reviewed how more than 6,000 districts planned to spend their relief aid.

AP found that districts with the highest percentage of children living in poverty were more than three times as likely as the wealthiest districts to dedicate money to the construction of new buildings or classrooms. School districts with high levels of poverty were also more than twice as likely to include money for facilities repairs.

“The poor districts are doing it because they’re chasing after emergencies,” said Mary Filardo, the executive director of the 21st Century School Fund.

LAUSD Cyberattack Worse Than Initially Reported

The Los Angeles Unified school district is now admitting that the scope of its 2022 data leak resulting from a cyberattack was far worse than initially reported, compromising about 2,000 student-assessment records as well as positive COVID test results, driver’s license numbers, and Social Security numbers.

Hundreds of former students’ psychological evaluations have also been published on the dark web, according to the nonprofit newsroom The 74.

Those evaluations contain intimate details about students’ medications, diagnoses, incidents of sexual abuse, home lives, past traumas, and behavioral challenges.

“This is some of the most sensitive information you could possibly have about someone that could embarrass them for the rest of their lives,” said Ariel Harman-Holmes, a parent and the vice chair of the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. “It’s extremely troubling.”

The evaluations were part of data released by a Russian criminal syndicate that tried to get ransom for the 500 gigabytes of data it stole in September. When the district refused to negotiate, the syndicate published thousands of files on the dark web on Oct. 1.

Initially, Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho painted a somewhat sunny picture of the damage, saying there was “no evidence of widespread impact, as far as truly sensitive confidential information.” And he was adamant that no psychological evaluations were included in the data leak.

But now, after the publication of The 74’s investigation, the district has changed its tune.

“The aftermath of a cyberattack is a multilayered, dynamic process in which real-time updates often alter the direction of an investigation,” said Jack Kelanic, a senior administrator of IT infrastructure. “As the district and its partners delve deeper into the reality of the data breach, the scope of the attack further actualizes, and new discoveries have been revealed.”

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Evie Blad, Senior Staff Writer; Arianna Prothero, Assistant Editor; Sarah D. Sparks, Assistant Editor; and Tribune News Service contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2023 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated


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