Education

Briefly Stated: September 28, 2022

September 27, 2022 9 min read
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Academic Recovery Is Slow and Uneven, Data Show

By now, we know the terrible toll the pandemic took on academics. But what about the pace of recovery? New data show that it’s happening—but not in all grades, and not as quickly for the students who are below grade level and need help on the most basic skills.

It’s a bit of cold water that reflects what many school system leaders have warned about for months: Merely getting children back into brick-and-mortar classrooms won’t magically catch them up.

Curriculum Associates, a curriculum and assessment company, examined student progress in the 2021-22 school year. The analysis includes about 1.6 million students in grades 1-8 who took Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready diagnostic test in reading, and about 1.8 million who took it in math.

“We’re seeing that for students who are on grade level, there is some degree of recovery, and in some grades and subjects we’re even approaching pre-pandemic levels,” said Kristen Huff, the organization’s vice president of assessment and research. “But when we look on the other end of the performance distribution, students who are two or more grade levels below, we see some backtracking from 2021 to 2022 data.”

Overall, the percentage of students at grade level is holding steady in some grades, and increasing slightly in others, edging closer to prepandemic numbers, the analysis found. Student performance in math trended up too, but because the drop in scores in that subject was greater, there’s more ground to make up.

These broader, positive trends belie that many students need help in foundational skills—the building block skills that lay the groundwork for more complex work later. In reading, the percentage of K-3 students who were at grade level in phonics skills is still well below prepandemic levels, and the percentage of students who are below grade level has expanded. In math, the researchers saw similar trends across grades K-8 for numbers and operations—students’ ability to understand the relationships between numbers and perform the basic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

Is Federal Funding for Immigrant Students Falling Short?

The number of immigrant students has risen year after year, thanks to events like civil wars in Africa, the United States’ departure from Afghanistan, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the migrant crisis in Latin America. Now, experts warn that our nation’s funding to support these students—whose needs go far beyond instructional support—may not be up to the task.

A report from Next 100—a startup initiative out of The Century Foundation, a progressive public policy think tank—looks at the Title III program, an $800 million fund that broadly provides funding for districts’ English-learner programs. States set aside up to 15 percent of their cut of this money for immigrant student services.

The problem, the group says, lies in the mechanics of how districts tap this set-aside. To do so, they must experience a significant increase in immigrant enrollment compared to the average of the previous two years. And that goes for every year they want to draw down funds.

What it all boils down to is that districts often wind up starting new programs and then can’t sustain them when the extra support disappears.

“Consistency is critical for students, for any student, but especially students who are highly mobile, especially students who are new to the country who have experienced any sort of trauma in their past,” said Alejandra Vázquez Baur, the report’s author.

She recommends replacing the funding with a formula system based on the number of immigrant students in each district, and a separate emergency-use fund that the U.S. Department of Education would use to address sudden influxes.

That idea has some critics of its own.

“I think the intention is to use the Title III immigrant money to start or enhance programs, because there’s always an extra cost associated with that, but then the ongoing continuation of the program should come out of local funds,” said Julie Sugarman, a senior policy analyst for pre-K-12 education for the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank that analyzes immigration issues.

Sugarman worries about a different problem: The lag in the U.S. Census data used to track increases in immigrant student enrollment. It usually takes two or three years for it to catch up to a rise in local communities’ immigrant student population, she noted.

Financial Supports Critical to Recruiting, Retaining Teachers of Color

Can it with the policy-wonk ideas! Teachers of color overwhelmingly favor broad solutions that make the profession more affordable, not fancier approaches, according to a new survey.

School districts have long sought teachers of color, who make up just 20 percent of the profession and provide valuable academic and social-emotional benefits to all students, but particularly to students of color.

Researchers from the RAND Corporation picked up the ball, asking a nationally representative sample of Black and Hispanic teachers, as well as other teachers of color, what would help recruit and retain them. It compared their responses to what a panel of policymakers had to say. Among the findings:

Teachers of color overwhelmingly chose financial incentives and relief as a strategy to boost enrollment in teacher preparation. Fifty-eight percent of teachers of color—and 67 percent of Black teachers—said expanding student loan forgiveness or service scholarships would help boost enrollment in teacher preparation. Policymakers liked loan forgiveness, too, but two-thirds selected grow-your-own programs, which just 9 percent of teachers of color selected.

On compensation options, 72 percent of teachers of color said increasing teacher salaries throughout the pay scale would help matters. But policymakers favored targeted forms of financial incentives—such as higher pay or benefits for historically hard-to-staff positions, or financial incentives for teachers who work in high-needs schools.

After taking pay out of the equation, the educators preferred cutting some of the red tape that complicates transferring teacher licenses across states. Fifty-one percent named that as a promising strategy, and 49 percent suggested partnering with local teacher-preparation programs that have racially diverse candidates. Nearly half of the policymakers—but just 28 percent of the teachers of color surveyed—said they thought requiring ongoing training for school hiring teams about anti-racist hiring practices would be effective.

 “There is a huge value in just asking teachers: Is this working? Why or why not?” said José Vilson, the executive director of EduColor and a former New York City math teacher. “If we improve working conditions for teachers of color, we’re more likely to raise the bar for everybody—it’s a tide that lifts all boats.”

Right-Wing Groups Are Coordinating Book Bans

Book bans are popping up in record numbers—and they’re not appearing by coincidence.

A legion of right-wing activist organizations and Republican lawmakers are behind them, putting pressure on districts to ban books about and by LGBTQ people and people of color.

That’s what PEN America, a free speech advocacy organization, discovered in a new analysis. The groups pushing for books to be taken off library shelves and removed from the curriculum in school districts range from national advocacy groups with several branches across the country, including Moms for Liberty, to local-level Facebook groups. Together they are responsible for at least half of all bans, PEN America found.

The report identifies at least 50 different groups involved in local and state-level efforts to ban books, some with hundreds of chapters. Most of these groups have sprung up since 2021. During the 2021-22 school year, nearly 140 school districts in 32 states banned more than 2,500 books, PEN America found. Twenty percent of all book bans over the past year were directly linked to the actions of these groups, with many more likely influenced by them, according to PEN America.

“These groups probably do not necessarily represent a range of beliefs from our democracy,” said Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education programs at PEN America and author of the report. “So they’re having an outsized impact in a lot of places on what it is that everybody gets to read. And that, I think, is what’s most concerning.”

Brian Camenker, the executive director of one of the groups, MassResistance, said the books in question contain inappropriate sexual material.

“The LGBT issues, this is not necessarily a healthy behavior for libraries to be promoting on kids. And, and all of them, every one that I see involves sexuality,” he said. “The question isn’t really, who would want to ban these books, but the question is, who would want them?”

Virginia Reverses Course on Policy for Trans Students

A new Virginia model policy that rolls back freedoms for transgender students will be harmful for the mental health and safety of trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming students at school, as well as the broader LGBTQ student body, health experts warn.

The new model policy, introduced by Virginia’s Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin earlier this month, asks teachers and other school employees to only refer to students by their legal name and sex assigned at birth unless a parent files a written petition to allow their child to change their pronouns. Even in that case, the legal name and sex “shall not be changed” on the school records, the model policy says.

The policy also says a school can’t instruct teachers to withhold information about a student’s gender identity from their parents. Finally, it requires transgender students to use bathrooms and play on sports teams aligned with their sex assigned at birth as opposed to their gender identity.

“Probably to me, the most concerning piece of it … is that, you know, it requires almost a forced outing of students to their parents,” said Eden Heilman, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

The new policy marks a major flip-flop for the state. A 2021 model policy, which was introduced by Youngkin’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, was much more inclusive and allowed transgender students to use bathrooms and play on teams of their choice. Youngkin’s spokeswoman said that the former policy did not uphold constitutional principles and parental rights.

The ACLU of Virginia says some districts are concerned that by adopting the model policy, they could come into conflict with federal law. The Biden Administration has recently promulgated proposed rules that broaden the definition of sex-based harassment and discrimination to include gender identity and sexual orientation.

But advocates of trans students say the greatest harm lies in the message the new Virginia policy sends to them. “It basically says your state thinks you’re not worthy of being protected,” said Stephen Forssell, a professor in the psychological and brain sciences department at George Washington University.

Ileana Najarro, Staff Writer; Eesha Pendharkar, Staff Writer; Sarah Schwartz, Staff Writer; and Madeline Will, Staff Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2022 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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