Education Briefly Stated

Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed

November 17, 2020 8 min read
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State Voters Welcome Sex Ed. Requirement, Taxing More Affluent

Up with sex education. Down with affirmative action. Up with higher taxes on the more affluent.

Those are the outcomes of some high-profile state ballot measures on which voters had their say this election cycle.

Despite strong—and bitter—opposition to Washington state’s Proposition 90, the electorate there made history by passing the nation’s first comprehensive sex education measure decided by the ballot.

After the state Senate approved a sex education bill in March, a petition forged by Republicans and religious conservatives forced sex education onto the ballot.

Supporters of sex education argue that children should be able to talk about sensitive topics with trusted adults at schools in order to prevent sexual abuse, promote responsible decision making, and learn about forming healthy relationships.

Now, public school districts must use curriculum that aligns with the new wide-ranging standards and must teach age-appropriate concepts by grade level. Voters in Arizona, meanwhile, approved a new tax on high-earning residents that could bring in nearly $1 billion of new revenue annually to the state’s under-funded school system.

The approval of Proposition 208 came after the business community spent millions trying to defeat the measure, arguing it would hurt the economy.

The Invest in Education Act will impose an extra 3.5 percent tax on income above $250,000 for individuals and for couples making more than $500,000. In neighboring California, the campaign to reinstate affirmative action had money, momentum, and big-name backers, but voters nonetheless rejected the measure.

Supporters of Proposition 16 said they didn’t have enough time to sway voters on the touchy topic of government preferences in public hiring, contracting, and college admissions based on race, ethnicity, or gender even during a national reckoning on race.

Also out West, Utah voters have approved a major structural change to how schools are funded.

The proposal known as Amendment G changes a constitutional requirement that income taxes be only used to fund education. Now, that money can also be used for programs to help children and people with disabilities.

QAnon Conspiracy Theories May Be Raised in Class: What Do Teachers Do to Deal With the Subject?

Another conspiracy theory—or theories—making the rounds just might surface in classrooms. What are teachers to do if students bring up QAnon, what The New York Times defines as “a sprawling set of internet conspiracy theories that allege, falsely, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who are plotting against [President Donald] Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring.”

Two-thirds of educators said in a recent EdWeek Research Center survey they either haven’t heard of QAnon or don’t know enough to have an opinion. And about a third don’t buy into it at all, while just 3 percent think it’s “somewhat” or “completely” true.

Among those who have heard about QAnon, though, young adults, ages 18 to 29, are the most likely to say they believe in the conspiracy theory, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

When high school students do buy into QAnon theories, it can become a daunting task for teachers to debunk them, a recent Buzzfeed News article reported. “For the teachers I spoke to, explaining actual facts to misguided students can seem nearly impossible,” reporter Scaachi Koul wrote. “In response, their students simply say that the news media is biased and that Donald Trump is sending subtle signals to QAnon believers about how he’s on the brink of saving the world from pedophile rings.”

Instead of teachers trying to disprove a set of convoluted theories, Adam Enders, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisville, said a better approach might be teaching students how to spot misinformation.

Chris Dier, a U.S. history teacher in New Orleans and the 2020 Louisiana teacher of the year, had a student bring up QAnon this year. Dier gave a brief explanation, and his students seemed to quickly dismiss the theories as false.

If a student did believe QAnon theories were true, Dier said he would use it as an opportunity to push for sources and evidence, which is already a staple of his classroom, or talk to the student one-on-one. “I would never dismiss their concerns—their views are just as legitimate to them as ours are to us,” he said. “I would have them dissect the [theories] and demand evidence.”

‘Bye, Betsy’ and More: Education World Reacts to Joe Biden’s Presidential Election Win

Supporters of President Donald Trump may be deeply disappointed by the outcome of the presidential election, but many in the education world rejoiced not only at former Vice President Joe Biden’s victory but also the soon-to-end tenure of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who was seen as a champion of charter schools at the expense of public ones.

The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, which both endorsed Biden in the general election and have opposed Trump at virtually every turn, expressed their confidence that Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would support public schools.

AFT President Randi Weingarten also confided that she cried on Nov. 6, as Biden widened his lead and moved closer to victory: “It’s the first time I felt like I could release emotions in the last five years.”

Democratic lawmakers with leading roles in education policy also congratulated the Biden-Harris win, as did former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, an influential conservative in education policy and a one-time GOP presidential hopeful.

Education groups praising Biden and Harris also took the opportunity to urge them to act on pressing K-12 issues. For instance, GLSEN, which advocates LGBTQ students’ rights, said, “There is much work still ahead to rebuild and repair our schools to ensure that every LGBTQ+ child finds safety and liberation in education.”

However, it was hard to avoid the jubilation—and mockery—educators aimed at DeVos. The Chicago Teachers Union tweeted: “Bye Betsy.” Nate Bowling, the 2016 Washington state teacher of the year, used a GIF to express his joy. And the president of the AFT’s Massachusetts affiliate, Beth Kontos, shared an unflattering image of DeVos with the message: “Adios, Betsy. Public education is not at your mercy any longer.”

Not everyone in K-12, of course, was happy with the results.

Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, cautioned that a Biden administration would be a return to the bad old days of the Obama era when disagreement with its ideological agenda should earn students epithets.

Simple Tool Could Curtail Racial Bias in Grading

A child’s name alone seems to have at least a small impact on a student’s grade.

As an experiment, more than 1,500 teachers were given one of two pieces of writing from an imaginary 2nd grader. Both papers were identical—full of large print and youthful misspellings—except that one piece referred to a brother named “Dashawn,” and the other talked about the student’s brother “Connor.” The name choices come from a list of racially distinctive names; Connor is more likely to refer to a white child, while Dashawn is more likely to be the name of a Black child.

About 35 percent of teachers judged the “Connor” paper as being at or above grade level, compared with nearly 31 percent of those who gave the “Dashawn” paper the same marks. David M. Quinn, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California, suggests that teachers were influenced by the subtle signals within the paper that one child was Black and the other white.

But when teachers were given a set of performance criteria to use in evaluating the student writing, that disparity disappeared. About 37 percent of teachers said the writing samples met the guidelines intended to measure how well the imaginary student was able to recount an event.

Giving teachers a set of specific criteria to judge a child’s work, rather than forcing them to rely on a possibly more vague sense of grade-level performance, could be a useful tool in reducing the impact of racial bias, said Quinn, in an article for the journal Education Next, which was also published in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

Most Seniors Ill-Prepared for College Math, Reading

This can’t be blamed on COVID-19: Little more than 1 in 3 American high school seniors read proficiently, and fewer than 1 in 4 performed proficiently in math on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, marking widening gaps for struggling students in both subjects.

The results of the latest round of tests, administered before the start of the pandemic last spring, found the average math score has been flat since 2015, while the average reading score dropped 2 points on a 300-point scale. All told, although 61 percent of 12th graders who took NAEP last year reported they had applied to or been accepted at a four-year college, only 37 percent performed well enough in both math and reading to be considered ready for freshman college courses in those subjects, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the assessment.

What’s more, the performance of students who were already struggling declined in 2019 across both subjects in grades 4, 8, and 12, compared with four years ago. The 10 percent of students struggling the most has dropped 20 points since 1992, a record low.

Peggy Carr, NCES’ associate commissioner, said background questionnaires given with the tests showed deep uncertainty among students: “Students were very clear that they didn’t know or feel very confident in some very basic fundamental skills when it comes to reading—being able to recognize the author’s purpose, being able to identify specific things—or being able to conduct some basic fundamental math operations.”

NCES found more students at all proficiency levels have started taking advanced-math courses, but that hasn’t translated to greater understanding of those topics: 62 percent of students who performed “below basic” in 2005 took advanced courses, 81 percent of below-basic students did so in 2019.

“This is a curious finding,” said Grady Wilburn of NCES. “You would think that more advanced courses would correlate with students moving out of the below-basic category. However, our results don’t show that relationship.” In fact, the percentage of students below basic increased in math in grades 8 and 12 and in reading at all three grades in 2019.

Briefly Stated Contributors: Associated Press, Christina Samuels, Sarah D. Sparks, Andrew Ujifusa, and Madeline Will.. Edited by Karen Diegmueller.
A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed

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