Education

Briefly Stated: September 22, 2021

September 21, 2021 9 min read
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Education Groups Join to Resist Prohibitions on Racism Instruction

Enough is enough is enough. So say some prominent education organizations that are pushing back against efforts to restrict teaching students about racism and oppression.

Amid a flurry of state actions to ban discussions of “divisive concepts” and months of charged debates at school board meetings over critical race theory, a coalition has formed to help educators respond to community critique of curricula or anti-racism initiatives. The Learn from History coalition, put together by the Stand for Children Leadership Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, plans to publicize “first-person accounts of the harm and costs of efforts to restrict what is taught in classrooms across the country.”

“Unfortunately, rampant misinformation about what is taught in schools is forcing teachers to omit difficult parts of our history and not teach students that racism is wrong and is adding yet another stressor for teachers at the worst possible time,” the coalition website reads.

The group identifies as bipartisan and names a wide range of partners, including AASA, the School Superintendents Association; the American Federation of Teachers; the American Historical Association; the Education Trust; the National Council for the Social Studies; and the National School Boards Association.

Its website provides separate toolkits for school board members, school system leaders, teachers, and parents that outline how to combat accusations that schools are teaching critical race theory and sowing division among students.

Opponents claim that schools are teaching critical race theory, an approach to legal studies which holds that racism is systemic, and that even laws and policies that are race-neutral on their face can have racist outcomes. In public discourse, critics have misinterpreted and misappropriated the term, using it to refer to a host of educational priorities, from history lessons on the civil rights movement to diverse classroom libraries to culturally responsive teaching.

Twenty-seven states have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict teaching CRT; 12 have enacted bans via legislation or other avenues.

The Learn from History coalition is also offering guidance on messaging in its new resources.

“We believe that the opposition’s narrative has been unanswered for much too long,” said Cesar Cardenas, the coalition’s national communications lead.

Schools in Desperate Need of Facilities Upgrades, But Democrats’ $82 Billion Plan Won’t Be Enough

If you’ve spent much time in schools, you know many aren’t in great shape—quite the contrary. Dated ventilation systems, leaky roofs, lead in pipes. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

House Democrats have proposed doing something about it: $82 billion in federal grant funding along with a requirement that states provide 10 percent in matching funds to improve the nation’s school buildings. All that could change, of course, if the bill passes at all.

Despite that huge number, schools will need far more than that, two new reports emphasize.

In the meantime, needs are growing, according to the “State of Our Schools” report from a coalition of organizations including the National Council on School Facilities, the 21st Century School Fund, and the International Well Building Institute.

Schools currently spend roughly $110 billion per year on facilities. The report, following up on a similar 2016 study, asserts they are collectively investing $85 billion less per year in construction and improvements than would be needed to achieve full modernization. That number reflects a $25 billion increase, adjusted for inflation, over the gap identified in 2016.

Thousands of buildings are in disrepair thanks to minimal state and federal investment in school construction over the last few decades. Some states contribute nothing to districts for facilities work, leaving them to raise money from local taxes if they can or languish if they can’t. On average, 77 percent of funding for schools’ facilities projects comes from local sources, according to the report.

Districts have been saddled with crushing debt. In fiscal 2019, they collectively spent $20 billion on interest for long-term debt—more than the entire annual federal Title I allocation for disadvantaged students, the report says.

There’s plenty of evidence, though, that the Democrats’ plan would fall short of transformative change. That second report, released this month by the North Carolina education department, identifies $13 billion of urgent facilities needs in the state—the equivalent of 15 percent of the entire proposed nationwide federal investment.

History of Rejection Seems to Be Better Predictor Of K-12 Shooters Than a Sudden, Acute Rebuff

Students who commit shootings in K-12 schools are more likely to have a long history of rejection and lack a sense of belonging than are mass shooters in college and adult settings—but they are less likely to have experienced a sudden breakup or showed bad behavior that can serve as a red flag for administrators.

That’s the conclusion of a new study in the Journal of Social Psychology, which compared the characteristics of 57 shootings on K-12 campuses with 24 college shootings and 77 mass shootings in other places since 2001. The findings come amid a rise in school shootings that coincides with the return to in-person schooling. According to Education Week’s shooting tracker, 15 shootings have occurred on school campuses since the start of 2021, with seven since the start of August. (Unlike the study, Education Week also tracks shootings on campus or buses during a school-sponsored event.)

“These [shooters], in particular in K-12, are not necessarily loners; they’re failed joiners, so you’re not necessarily having a lot of disciplinary problems,” said Robin Kowalski, a psychology professor at Clemson University, who led the study.

Kowalski and her colleagues found some commonalities across all kinds of shooters, who were more likely to have mental-health issues, problems with rejection, and a fascination with guns or violence. But K-12 shooters were more likely than adults to have had a long-term history of rejection, often as victims of chronic bullying or parental neglect. Adult shooters, by contrast, were more likely to have had a sudden intense rejection, such as losing a job or spouse, before the shooting.

While the combination of psychological problems and a fascination with guns and violence could be a red flag, Kowalski noted that for K-12 shooters in particular, chronic rejection could be an even more common sign that a student could be at risk than a sudden, dramatic rejection.

“You can sort of see who’s sitting alone at lunch, who’s standing on the periphery with nobody to talk to,” Kowalski said. However, she cautioned that administrators should focus on building social supports, rather than profiling students as “potential shooters,” as many students can have strong feelings of rejection—or even mental-health issues—without causing violence to others.

COVID-19 Vaccines Now a Must in L.A. Schools

The Los Angeles Unified school district really knows how to push the envelope. It will require COVID-19 vaccines for all students 12 and older who attend school in person, a move that could pave the way for other districts to enact similar mandates.

With 600,000 students, it already had among the strictest protocols for pandemic safety, requiring regular COVID testing for all staff and students, masks for everyone indoors and outdoors, and vaccines for all staff members unless they have medical or personal-belief reasons to avoid them.

The new requirement means that all eligible students must be fully vaccinated by the time they return from winter break, which runs Dec. 17 to Jan. 11. The policy also applies to charter school students whose schools share space with traditional schools. More than 100,000 of the district’s students attend charter schools. Vaccines are not required for the 15,000 students who have opted for at-home learning this year.

Only a handful of districts have ventured into the controversial territory of requiring vaccines for all students. Culver City, a district in the Los Angeles area, appears to be the first to require the vaccine for students 12 and older, though its policy doesn’t take effect until mid-November. The district in Hoboken, N.J., will require vaccinations for eligible students or regular COVID testing.

Some other districts, such as Baltimore, require vaccines only for some subsets of students, typically student athletes. The Jackson, Miss., schools require student athletes to be vaccinated or submit to regular COVID testing.

Francisco Negrón, the chief legal officer for the National School Boards Association, said Los Angeles has reason to believe it can defend its new policy against legal challenges because the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has repeatedly recommended vaccination as important protection for children.

Long a Bastion of Testing, Fla. Plans to Pull the Plug

Perhaps he’s trying to get teachers back on his good side—after ticking many off with his edict to banish mask mandates for schools.

What Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says he wants to do is replace the state’s annual standardized tests in the spring with “progress monitoring” starting next school year.

In his announcement last week, DeSantis said the policy change would provide more timely and useful information to teachers and parents and reduce the testing burden for students and schools by 75 percent.

If the move comes to fruition, it would be a major shift for one of the largest states by K-12 enrollment, although it would still have to meet federal testing requirements. Starting with former GOP Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999, Florida came to rely significantly on test results with respect to education policy.

It remains to be seen if policymakers there are willing to make changes to policies that hinge on test scores.

But DeSantis made it clear he believes that a new testing regimen is necessary.

He called ending the current tests the “final step” in ending the Common Core State Standards in Florida, although the link between the announcement and the standards wasn’t immediately clear. As governor, DeSantis has hit out against the common core, and in fact last year declared that he had eliminated it when the state released new content standards.

Florida could craft new interim assessments that would abide by federal law, but the governor’s announcement is long on slogans and short on important details, at least for now, said Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.

Moreover, although DeSantis’ announcement will likely get a lot of public support, Polikoff said he is skeptical that Florida will actually be able to reduce the burden of testing by 75 percent after switching to the new system.

Catherine Gewertz, Senior Contributing Writer; Mark Lieberman, Reporter; Sarah Schwartz, Staff Writer; Sarah D. Sparks, Assistant Editor; and Andrew Ujifusa, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2021 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed

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