Education

Briefly Stated: September 27, 2023

September 26, 2023 9 min read
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High Turnover Persists Among Leaders Of School Districts

The height of the pandemic is over—at least for now—but that hasn’t stopped the pace of school superintendents quitting their jobs.

They left their posts in about 1 in 5 of the nation’s 500 largest districts last school year—a sign that stressors destabilizing educational leadership in recent years have not abated—finds a new analysis by the ILO Group consulting firm.

The high level of leadership churn comes as districts face urgent work in learning recovery, student engagement, employee morale, and the pending deadline to spend federal COVID-19-relief aid.

In polls, school and district leaders have identified increased public scrutiny and divisive politics as causes of heightened stress.

Eighty percent of superintendents responding to a May survey by the RAND Corp. and the Center on Reinventing Public Education said their jobs are “often” or “always” stressful. And 88 percent cited “the intrusion of political issues and opinions into schooling” as a source of that stress.

Meanwhile, the proportion of women leading the largest districts has increased slightly in recent years. This July, women led 152 of those districts, compared with 139 in 2018.

The data from ILO Group suggest those large systems are slightly more inclined to be led by women than districts nationally.

That men still lead about 70 percent of the nation’s 500 largest districts is particularly striking in a field where 77 percent of teachers are women, said Julia Rafal-Baer, the CEO of ILO Group.

The data also suggest that women often become superintendents after stepping up during tumultuous periods in their districts.

Of the women superintendents, 53 percent were internal candidates. And 7 of 10 of those internal candidates were appointed initially on an interim basis.

“Women are more often required to prove that they can succeed in the position before they are hired more permanently for it,” said Emily Hartnett, the senior managing director at ILO.

Districts where at least three quarters of school board members are female were more likely to hire women superintendents than districts where at least three quarters of members were male, the analysis found.

Stop Trashing Those Chromebooks. Google To Extend the Lifespan of Popular Laptop

Google is extending software support for its popular Chromebooks, in an effort to keep aging—but still operational—devices out of landfills, sparing both the environment and school district bank accounts.

Starting next year, Google will support Chromebooks released in 2021 and after with 10 years of software updates, up from about five for some older devices, the company recently announced. Educators and district staff using Chromebooks out before 2021 can opt-in to extended updates. The company also announced plans to make the devices more energy efficient and easier to repair.

The move is a step toward making Chromebooks more sustainable and lengthening the life of the investments school districts have made in providing the devices to students and teachers, said Jeannie Crowley, the director of technology and innovation for the Scarsdale school district in suburban New York.

In the past, Chromebooks were seen as “very disposable devices” that only a lasted a few years, but were relatively inexpensive to purchase, Crowley said.

But now the price has risen to a few hundred dollars. “Google saying, ‘we’ll keep continuing to support this device for a full 10 years,’ I think really sets a strong expectation for how long we should be able to hold on to our devices,” Crowley said.

Google’s policy shift comes just months after U.S. PIRG, a consumer watchdog organization, released an analysis claiming that if the company committed to supporting software for its Chromebook models for 10 years, up from as little as five years for some older models, as well as make the devices more durable and cheaper to repair, school districts could save as much as $1.8 billion annually. (That’s more than the $1.4 billion the federal government spends on career and technical education programs each year.)

Crowley, for one, doesn’t expect the savings to districts from extended software support alone to be especially dramatic, in part because Chromebooks simply aren’t durable enough to last a full decade. They are typically “beat to heck” after just three or four years, she said.

But replacing devices less often would have a material benefit for districts, Crowley added. Her district replaces its devices every three to four years, at a cost of about $1 million a year. Extending that to every six years would cut that in half, to $500,000.

Finding the Sources of PCB Contamination In Schools Just Got Easier and Maybe Cheaper

Finding Where’s Waldo might be easier—and certainly less costly.

In a sense, that’s what districts have been doing for years in their quest to find where exactly the toxic chemicals known as PCBs are present in their buildings. Now, though, relief may be on the way.

Researchers at the University of Iowa’s Superfund Research Program say they have for the first time successfully executed a method to isolate PCB contamination to specific materials in a classroom.

The findings come from their analysis of a single elementary school in Vermont. The findings don’t comprehensively address the extent of PCB use in construction materials. But they point to a concrete step districts can take to understand the extent of the contamination that could put far less strain on their budgets.

“A year ago, I thought it was possible that all schools built before 1980 had high levels [of PCBs],” said Keri Hornbuckle, who led the study. “Now, we know that it is indeed individual materials and individual school rooms that are relevant.”

Researchers estimate thousands of school buildings nationwide likely contain harmful levels of PCBs.

Hornbuckle and her colleagues gathered 30 days of air samples to detect general contamination, and they deployed emissions samplers that absorbed PCBs coming from a variety of surfaces, including vinyl tiles, carpets, painted bricks, and painted drywall.

The air samples confirmed PCBs were present. But the samples of individual materials were more revealing. Of the building components the researchers examined, glass-block windows had a concentration of PCBs that far exceeded concentrations in such materials as caulk and paint, Hornbuckle said.

In the glass-block windows, the PCBs were concentrated not on the edge of the windows or the mortar but in the center of the glass blocks themselves. Prior research indicates PCBs tend to leach into the air more quickly when exposed to heat.

Hornbuckle isn’t calling for schools en masse to tear down their glass-block windows. The message from her and her team, rather, is that directly measuring PCB emissions from individual building components holds promise as schools try to get to the bottom of their contamination problems.

Book Challenges Targeting Public Libraries Now, Too

There’s a new twist to all those book bans and attempted bans that continue to hit record highs. They’re now extending as much to public libraries as school-based libraries, says the American Library Association.

Through the first eight months of this year, the ALA tracked 695 challenges to library materials and services, compared with 681 during the same period last year, and a 20 percent jump in the number of “unique titles” involved to 1,915.

School libraries had long been the predominant target, but reports have been near-equally divided between schools and libraries open to the general public this year. “The irony is that you had some censors who said that those who didn’t want books pulled from schools could just go to the public libraries,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, who directs the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

In 2019, the last pre-pandemic year, the association recorded just 377 challenges, involving 566 titles. The numbers fell in 2020, when many libraries were closed, but have since risen to the most in the association’s 20-plus year history of compiling data. Because the totals are based on media accounts and reports submitted by librarians, the ALA regards its numbers as snapshots, with many incidents left unrecorded.

The challenges are increasingly directed against multiple titles. In 2023, complaints about 100 or more works were recorded by the ALA in 11 states, compared with six last year and none in 2021. The most sweeping challenges often originate with such conservative organizations as Moms for Liberty, which has organized banning efforts nationwide and called for more parental control over books available to children.

Attacks against teachers and librarians also have been ongoing. And the ALA’s opposition to bans has led some communities to withdraw their membership.

Video Shows Police Using Stun Gun on Band Leader

Incidents of violence occur from time to time at high school football games. But this latest may be a first. At an Alabama high school, police officers arrested and shocked a band director with a stun gun after he refused to immediately stop the band as it played in the bleachers following a football game.

Johnny Mims said he was confused when officers pulled him from the director’s podium to arrest him following the Sept. 14 game between Minor, where he works, and Jackson-Olin high schools.

“I was in shock. Just totally confused because I was pretty much doing my job and I hadn’t done anything wrong,” Mims said.

Police body-camera footage shows Mims repeatedly shocked in a chaotic scene that included students screaming. Police charged him with disorderly conduct, harassment, and resisting arrest.

In the body-camera footage, officers are seen approaching Mims as the band plays. They ask him several times to stop, saying it is time for everyone to leave since the game is over.

After the song ended, officers are seen in the video apparently trying to arrest him, in a scrum of bodies. Students in the 145-member band can be heard screaming.

Mims said the two bands were doing what is sometimes called a fifth-quarter show in which they perform as attendees leave the stadium. He said he wasn’t trying to be defiant but rather was attempting to wrap up the song.

Police said that Mims refused to put his hands behind his back and that the arresting officer said he was pushed by the band director, which led to the use of the stun gun.

Mims said he didn’t push or hit any of the officers.

He and the officers who approached him are Black. Both high schools have majority-Black student bodies. “This wouldn’t have happened in Mountain Brook. This wouldn’t have happened in Hoover. ... And everyone in this room knows that,” said his lawyer, Juandalynn Givan, referring to affluent majority-white cities in the Birmingham area.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Evie Blad, Senior Staff Writer; Alyson Klein, Assistant Editor; Mark Lieberman, Reporter; and Tribune News Service contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2023 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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