Briefly Stated: May 17, 2023

May 16, 2023 8 min read
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Most Students Lack Strong Connections to Their Teachers

Student perception of teacher connection has declined over time to a new low in the current school year.

That’s what a new survey of secondary students reveals in a report from YouthTruth, which surveys K-12 students and families for school districts.

A mere 22 percent of middle and high schoolers reported that “many” or “all” their teachers make an effort to understand what their life is like outside of school, according to the survey.

The findings, published last week, come as teenagers across the country struggle with both their mental health and their studies. And they run counter to what research shows: that students learn best when they feel cared for and connected to their teachers and classmates.

“This has never been an area that students have felt particularly positively about,” said Jen Wilka, the executive director of YouthTruth.

Just why this disconnect is happening is unclear. The report’s authors speculate that the decrease in student perception of teacher connection could be influenced by staffing shortages, behavioral disruptions in class, or teachers’ mental health, among other factors.

In the decade before the COVID-19 pandemic, just a little more than a quarter (26 percent) of middle and high school students reported that many or all their teachers made an effort to understand what their lives were like outside of school.

Then came the pandemic and widespread school closures in spring 2020. The percentage of students who said teachers were making an effort to understand their lives shot up to 43 percent. It then dropped to 30 percent in fall 2020, 28 percent in spring 2021, and 22 percent by fall 2022.

The increase in spring 2020 could be related to emergency remote learning, when “students and teachers were afforded windows into each others’ homes and lives,” the report says.

What’s more, the focus early in the pandemic was on relationships and not as much on academics, said Doug Keller, who helps lead workshops with students as one of YouthTruth’s partnerships leads.

“Students found that their teachers were more available to chat with them, send emails, even respond to texts,” Keller said. “Something felt very different during that time. And now, we’re back to the pressure of getting students back on track academically.”

N.Y.C. Officials Mandate Reading Instruction Be Phonics-Based in All Elementary Schools

Phonics is poised to reign supreme in the nation’s largest school district.

After decades of dueling approaches to literacy, New York City launched a sweeping plan last week that will require schools to teach reading with an emphasis on phonics.

Mayor Eric Adams and schools Chancellor David Banks—who has described an overhaul of literacy instruction as “the legacy work for this administration”— announced elementary teachers will have to implement one of three comprehensive reading programs over the next couple years.

If effective, the new policy could mark a seismic shift in a city where less than half of 3rd through 8th graders scored “proficient” on state reading exams last year. More than 63 percent of Black and Hispanic test-takers did not make the grade.

“I’m staking my entire chancellorship on this body of work,” Banks said in the weeks leading up to the announcement.

Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, schools across the city promoted a ubiquitous—but controversial—curriculum from Teachers College, Columbia University that critics charge devalues the relationships between sounds and letters, in favor of developing a love of books and their meaning.

Some strategies have been compared to guesswork with a reliance on memorization and pictures for comprehension.

The so-called “reading wars” between approaches to literacy have escalated as schools and families look to catch kids up on missed classroom time since the pandemic took hold.

Fewer than 4 in 10 of 5th graders were proficient readers last year, state data show. Those students were in 3rd grade when school buildings shuttered—a school year considered pivotal for students to learn how to read or face an uphill battle to academic success.

Schools were asked to add supplemental lessons in phonics this year on top of their current curriculum.

Under the plan outlined last week, all elementary schools will have to transition within two years to one of the department’s preapproved curriculum options: Expeditionary Learning, Wit and Wisdom, or Into Reading.

Promoted as a Cheaper Track to 4-Year Schools, Community College Tends to Derail Students

Every year, hundreds of thousands of students start at community colleges hoping to transfer to a university later. It’s advertised as a cheaper path to a bachelor’s degree, an education hack in a world of ever-rising tuition costs.

Yet, among nearly 1 million students who started at a community college in 2016, just 1 in 7 earned a bachelor’s degree within six years, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

One of the biggest obstacles is known as credit loss: when students take classes that never end up counting toward a degree.

Sometimes, it’s a result of poor advising. Without clear guidance from community colleges, students take courses they don’t need. Blame can also lie with four-year colleges, which have varying rules for evaluating transfer credits. Some are pickier than others.

The outcome, however, is often the same. Students take longer to finish their degrees, costing more in tuition. For many, the extra work becomes too much to bear. Ultimately, roughly half of community college students drop out.

“It’s completely defeating for some students,” said Jessie Ryan, the vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a research group. “These systems have been designed to work for colleges and educators, but they haven’t been designed to work for students.”

The search for solutions has yielded scattered success. In many states, colleges and universities have formed partnerships to make sure certain classes transfer. More than a dozen states have adopted common class-numbering systems to create consistency across schools.

Still, problems remain frustratingly common.

A recent study at the City University of New York system found, among students who transferred from a community college to a bachelor’s program, nearly half lost at least some work. On average, those students lost the equivalent of almost a full semester.

“The pipeline from community college to a bachelor’s degree is a very leaky pipeline,” said Alexandra Logue, one of the researchers and a former provost at the CUNY system. The outcomes are worst among Black, Hispanic and low-income students, who are more likely to start at community colleges, she said.

Mindset Tops List of Traits Principals Seek in Teachers

What do principals look for when hiring teachers?

The top three qualifications, according to a new survey of school leaders: how well a teacher’s mindset aligns with the school’s vision, whether their professional certification meets the school’s needs, and the teacher’s experience managing student behavior.

Notably, teacher diversity did not make the top of the list despite increased attention to the high mismatch between the demographics of the school-aged population and the teaching force.

Skill to work with students and overall job experience rounded out the top five, finds the study released this month by the RAND Corp. The survey asked leaders to list only their top three choices.

Even while principals struggled to find substitute teachers, the majority of the school leaders said fit remained extremely important to them—though elementary and middle school principals placed a higher premium on the trait.

Another difference between elementary and secondary principals: Certification carried less weight for school leaders of the lower grades than for those in middle and high schools.

Among all grade levels, the percentage of principals who ranked job experience among their top three qualifications was surprisingly low: less than a quarter overall, with 26 percent of elementary school leaders saying experience was a top-three qualification, compared with 18 percent of those in middle and high schools.

Educator diversity also ranked low among all grade levels—and across all school types: urban, suburban, rural, and schools with majority-white and majority-nonwhite populations.

A greater share—26 percent—of leaders in schools serving a majority of students of color said diversity was among a top-three consideration, compared with 15 percent of leaders in majority-white schools. Principals in low-income schools did not seem to prioritize diversity in teacher hiring, either.

Texas GOP Plans to Place Chaplains in Public Schools

In kindergarten classes across Texas, 5-year-olds coming to school for the first time could soon be greeted by picture books, colorful blocks, and the words, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”

As those children grow up, they could get dedicated time in the day to read the Bible or pray. And if they are going through a hard time, they could turn to a chaplain rather than a licensed school counselor for help on campus.

Lawmakers are working to inject Christianity into the public schools through a slate of bills in the Texas legislature.

What critics see as an assault on the separation of church and state, supporters argue is a step forward for religious liberty after a major U.S. Supreme Court decision last year.

The religious bills are backed by powerful figures and are arriving as Republicans double-down on what is seen as a winning issue to rile up their base: accusing public schools of indoctrinating students with a “woke” agenda.

Despite outcries of indoctrination, opponents of the bills warn that they place a premium on promoting a religious viewpoint to children.

“This is certainly moving toward a preferred faith in Texas, which is something that is deeply concerning,” said Joshua Houston, the advocacy director for the interfaith group Texas Impact.

Last week, the House gave final approval to a bill that would allow chaplains without state certification to work inside schools.

Rep. Cole Hefner said the plan is about giving districts “every tool that we can in the toolbox” to combat mental health problems and other crises. He conceded that districts could eventually replace all counselors with chaplains and rejected Democrats’ amendments to require parental consent and that schools provide a representative of any denomination if requested by a student, teacher, or parent.

Rep. Gene Wu, a Democrat, tried to bar schools from using public funds to pay the chaplains. “We should not use public monies to compensate religious services,” Wu said.

The amendment failed on a largely party line vote.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Lauraine Langreo, Staff Writer; Denisa R. Superville, Assistant Editor; and Tribune News Service contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2023 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated


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