Opinion of DeVos Plunging, Truancy Rising: 10 Key Findings From Latest EdWeek Survey

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room, Friday, March 27, 2020, in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room, Friday, March 27, 2020, in Washington.
—AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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Nearly half of the nation’s teachers and school district leaders said their opinion of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has grown less favorable as a result of her response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new nationally representative survey administered by the Education Week Research Center.

Six weeks after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency to combat the pandemic, the magnitude of the fallout in the nation’s K-12 schools is coming into focus. As it is, 43 states and four U.S. territories have now ordered or recommended that all schools remain closed for the remainder of this academic year, affecting roughly 45 million students.

Truancy appears to be rising, teacher morale is declining, and district spending is being cut. The nature of teaching is dramatically changing, with the majority of teachers reporting that they’re spending less time on assessment and test preparation and more time on communicating with parents and troubleshooting technology problems. And the negative effects of the crisis are being felt most harshly by the country’s neediest schools and children.

Following are 10 key findings from the EdWeek Research Center survey, which was completed online by 785 teachers and 322 district leaders on April 22 and 23.

1. Betsy DeVos was already unpopular with K-12 educators. Her approach to coronavirus has made those opinions worse.

Betsy DeVos’s approach to handling the coronavirus pandemic—which has included pushing schools to take on difficult challenges, such as continuing to teach new material, despite the rocky transition to remote learning—isn’t winning her any popularity contests. Just six percent of survey respondents said their opinion of the secretary has grown more favorable, compared with 45 percent who say their opinion has grown less favorable. Forty-nine percent of respondents said their opinion of DeVos remains the same.

Even before coronavirus, DeVos was unpopular. In the fall of 2017, the last time the EdWeek Research Center polled educators about her performance, just 10 percent said they had a favorable view of the Secretary. The recent coronavirus survey did not ask educators if they held a favorable or unfavorable view of Devos, but rather whether their view of her had improved or declined during the crisis.

And DeVos faces big decisions in the weeks and months ahead. For an in-depth look at DeVos’s high-stakes response to the coronavirus pandemic, check out this story from EdWeek’s Politics K-12 team.

2. Educators approve of governors’ responses to the coronavirus’ impact on schools.

Whose handling of the crisis do educators trust?

Well over half the respondents to the EdWeek Research Center’s survey said their opinion of their state’s governor has grown more favorable since the pandemic began, compared with just 17 percent who say their opinion has grown less favorable.

EdWeek also broke out results for the eight states with the largest number of survey respondents. Mike DeWine of Ohio, a Republican who was the first governor in the country to order all his state’s schools closed and among the first to eliminate mandatory state testing, won the most points for his handling of coronavirus issues impacting schools. Eighty percent of survey respondents from Ohio said they now view DeWine more favorably. At least 70 percent of survey respondents also reported more favorable opinions of governors Gavin Newsom of California and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, both Democrats who also took swift action.

3. Teachers say student truancy is getting worse, especially in high-poverty schools.

Taking attendance and measuring student engagement during the shift to remote and online learning has proved difficult, and for weeks teachers have been lamenting the challenges associated with just making contact with each of their students.

Alarmingly, the new survey results from the EdWeek Research Center suggest the problems may be getting worse. On average, teachers this time around reported that 25 percent of their students have been “essentially truant” (not logging in or making any contact, for example) during the coronavirus-related closures. That’s up from 21 percent on April 8.

The survey results from the nation’s highest-poverty schools are particularly concerning. Teachers in schools where more than three-fourths of students come from low-income families reported that an average of 36 percent of students are now truant, up 4 percentage points from April 8. In schools where less than one-fourth of students come from low-income families, teachers reported a much lower average truancy rate of 20 percent.

4. School districts are tightening their belts, impacting teacher hiring plans.

The majority of district leaders (58 percent) said they’ve made at least minor spending reductions to their 2019-20 budgets. That figure shoots up to 76 percent in school districts with 10,000 students or more—likely because they are more dependent on revenue from state budgets that are getting slammed as coronavirus-related business closures and shelter-in-place orders decimate sales and income tax revenue.

Among the cost-cutting measures increasingly being eyed by districts: slowing or freezing teacher hiring. Twenty-three percent of district leaders who responded to the EdWeek Research Center survey said the coronavirus fallout means no new teaching positions will be created for next school year, nearly double the share who said the same a month ago.

For a detailed look at how the coronavirus is affecting school spending and how chief financial officers are working to stave off layoffs and other cuts next academic year, see this explainer.

5. Student and teacher morale continues to decline.

The challenges of remote learning and the increasingly dire budget forecasts may be contributing to plummeting morale. The percentage of educators reporting that student morale post-coronavirus is much lower than it was prior to school closures has nearly doubled since March 25, from 16 to 31 percent.

Teachers also report their own morale has declined steadily. As of April 23, 24 percent of teachers said their morale was lower than pre-coronavirus, up from 16 percent in late March. Also likely contributing to that uptick: four of five teachers say that teaching now is more stressful than it was pre-coronavirus.

6. The new school day: Less testing, more tech troubleshooting.

Some of that stress is likely the result of teachers having to dramatically change the way they allocate their work time. Eighty percent of teachers who responded to the EdWeek Research Center survey said they’re spending more time troubleshooting technology problems, while 75 percent said the’re spending more time communicating with parents. At the same time, 62 percent of teachers said they’re spending less time on assessing their students’ knowledge (including formative assessments), and nearly two-thirds of teachers said they’re spending less time on test prep.

The declines in time spent testing have been especially dramatic in the highest-poverty districts: 71 percent of teachers in districts where at three-fourths of students come from low-income families say they’re spending less time on formative and summative assessments, compared with 49 percent of teachers in districts with less poverty.

7. Online instruction is taking hold.

Fully 93 percent of teachers reported that they are doing at least some online instruction, with 40 percent of teachers saying they are teaching online-only. That figure goes up to 68 percent in districts with the fewest low-income students; in districts with the most low-income students, just 36 percent of teachers say they are teaching online-only.

The switch to online learning is being fueled in part by expanded access to digital devices. All told, 42 percent of educators who responded to the EdWeek Research Center survey said their students had more access to school-issued personal devices than they did prior to the pandemic—although 18 percent of these educators reported that such expanded access is temporary and will end when schools re-open.

8. Teachers are most worried about reaching students who are low-achieving, poor, or living with disabilities.

The EdWeek Research Center asked educators whether it’s now more challenging to meet the needs of seven different groups of students. Most responded yes for every group, including higher-achieving children and high school students.

But educators are most worried about a few groups of students: 93 percent of respondents said it’s more challenging now to meet the needs of lower-achieving students, 92 percent said it’s more difficult to meet the needs of students from low-income families, and 91 percent said it’s more difficult to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

9. Despite challenges, educators remain optimistic about ed tech.

Although they generally didn’t sign up to be online instructors or IT support specialists, most educators remain relatively positive about the role of educational technology. Fifty-eight percent of survey respondents said their opinion of ed tech has grown more positive as a result of the increased usage of technology during the coronavirus closures. As is often the case, administrators have a rosier outlook than teachers: Just 6 percent of district leaders said their experiences during the coronavirus closures have led to a more negative view of ed tech, compared with 21 percent of teachers.

Furthermore, in areas where access to 1-to-1 computing has increased and is expected to continue, nearly three-fourths of educators predicted that such expanded technology access will make high-quality teaching and learning easier after the pandemic is over.

10. Educators seem to approve of schools remaining closed through the end of the academic year.

More than half of district leaders now say their schools are closed for the rest of the school year, up from 27 percent on April 8 and just 3 percent on March 25. District leaders in the West (69 percent), South (66 percent), and Midwest (63 percent) were far more likely than those in the Northeast (37 percent) to report such plans. The difference is likely related to many northeastern schools starting and ending comparatively late in the calendar year.

These plans appear to sit well with educators. Asked when they thought schools should re-open, just 2 percent said “now,” compared with 28 percent who said “in the fall.” Survey respondents were also far more likely to put their faith in their state’s leader than in President Donald Trump: 21 percent of educators said schools should open after their governor says it’s safe, compared with 2 percent who said they should open when Trump says it’s safe.

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