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School & District Management

Vaccine Requirements, Failing Grades, Teacher Evaluations: Our Latest Survey Results

By Holly Kurtz — December 22, 2020 7 min read
Image of child being vaccinated

As COVID-19 vaccines are beginning to roll out across the country, there is renewed hope that 2021 will be a better year than the past one. But that hope still comes with many questions for schools. One of the big ones is whether staff and students should be required to get the vaccine. It seems educators are split on that question, with a little more than half opposing such requirements.

Vaccine requirements are one of several timely topics that the EdWeek Research Center investigates in its December survey. It also examines student failure rates and related attitudes about assigning grades, perceptions of the top educational challenges of 2020, and opinions about teacher evaluations and school accountability measures.

The nationally representative, online survey was administered Dec. 16-17 to 1,143 pre-12 educators, including 318 district leaders, 266 principals, and 559 teachers.

Most Educators Oppose Vaccine Requirements as a Condition of Enrollment, Employment

A slight majority of teachers, principals, and district leaders (57 percent) say that no one should be required to get a vaccine as a condition of enrollment in, or employment by, a district or school.

However, opinions vary significantly depending on the location, demographics, and size of an educator’s school district. More than half of respondents in the Northeast and educators who work in larger and lower-poverty school districts say the vaccines should be a condition of school enrollment or employment. By contrast, respondents in the Midwest and educators who work in smaller and higher-poverty districts are more likely to say no one should be required to take the vaccine.

Educators who believe in requiring the vaccines are most likely to say teachers need to take them and least likely to say they should be required of students. A November EdWeek Research Center survey found that 46 percent of teachers are very likely to take the vaccine once it becomes available, 72 percent are likely, and the remainder are unlikely.

Student Failure Rates Rise as Grading Practices Stay the Same

Teachers and principals expect that 16 percent of their students will receive failing grades on the final report card of this semester, up from 9 percent during the fall of 2019, according the EdWeek Research Center survey.

Middle school teachers and principals predict the highest failure rates (22 percent, compared with 12 percent last fall), followed by high school educators (19 percent vs. 10 percent). Even elementary teachers and principals expect 12 percent of their students to receive failing grades, up from 6 percent in fall 2019.

Teachers whose students are all learning from home full-time expect failure rates that are more than double those of rates predicted by their peers whose students are all attending school in person (20 percent vs. 8 percent). Prior to the pandemic, teachers whose students are now remote reported failure rates similar to those reported by their peers whose students are currently experiencing in-person or hybrid instruction.

Higher failure rates (21 percent) are also predicted by teachers and principals in districts with higher poverty rates compared with lower-poverty schools (8 percent). Prior to the pandemic, teachers and principals reported that 11 percent of students failed in higher-poverty districts, compared with 4 percent in lower-poverty school districts.

Although that means that much larger numbers of students will almost certainly fail, the vast majority of teachers, principals, and district leaders (84 percent) say grades should still “count” this semester.

One reason for the increase in failure rates may be that grading practices remain largely unaltered since last fall, even as conditions have grown more challenging due to the pandemic. Sixty-seven percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders say that student grading practices this school year are the same, or almost the same but just a little more lenient, than they were before the pandemic. Just 5 percent have made major changes such as replacing grades with feedback, and 28 percent say grading is similar but a lot more lenient.

Hold Off on Test-Based Accountability During a Pandemic

School accountability requirements are not necessarily educators’ favorite policy initiative: Even before the pandemic hit, just 29 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders supported measures that grade or rank districts or schools based on test results or other student outcomes, according to the EdWeek Research Center’s December 17, 2020 survey.

Even fewer educators (22 percent) currently support applying such measures during the winter and spring of 2021. And less than half of educators who supported accountability measures prior to the pandemic (44 percent) now say they should be applied this spring.

Chief state school officers are of the same mind as rank and file educators: They recently asked President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team to allow them to exercise flexibility when applying federal accountability measures this spring.

Teachers: Don’t Evaluate Me During the Pandemic

Although most educators say student grades should count during the pandemic, they are less enthusiastic about being evaluated themselves. Just 19 percent of teachers say they should be evaluated (with associated consequences and/or rewards) during the winter/spring of 2021. Many district leaders disagree: 52 percent say teacher evaluations should continue as usual. But only 38 percent of principals support evaluating teachers this school year.

Most states are requiring teacher evaluations in some capacity this school year, EdWeek recently reported.

Many Teachers Work From School While Students Learn From Home

With COVID-19 rates continuing to rise, 40 percent of teachers say all their students are currently learning from home. The share of teachers who say all their students are engaging in remote instruction is even higher in urban areas (67 percent); in districts where students of color comprise at least three quarters of the enrollment (62 percent); and in the West (60 percent).

In the meantime, the share of teachers working entirely from home is much lower (24 percent). That’s because many teachers are continuing to work from schools even if their students aren’t there: Twenty-one percent of teachers who spend 100 percent of their time at school say that all of their students are now at home. And 48 percent of teachers who split their time between school and home say that their students are all learning remotely full time.

Declining Student Engagement Is Top Educational Challenge of 2020

Of all the many difficulties educators and their students have faced the past nine months, declining student engagement is the number one concern, with 80 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders saying it was a major challenge. Student learning loss is not far behind: 76 percent of educators say that was a major challenge this year.

Regardless of whether their districts are currently offering remote, in-person, or hybrid instruction, educators say that engagement or learning loss are their biggest challenges, followed by unreliable or slow internet in students’ homes, which was a major challenge for 69 percent of survey respondents.

Declines in student engagement are perceived as bigger problems at the secondary level, with 91 percent of middle school teachers and principals and 88 percent of high school educators reporting that this was a major challenge. By comparison, it was a major challenge for 74 percent of elementary teachers and principals.

Learning loss, by contrast, is seen as more problematic at the elementary level, where 81 percent of educators say it’s a major challenge. Sixty-five percent of high school teachers and principals and 76 percent of their middle school colleagues agree that learning loss is a major challenge.

Not surprisingly, unreliable student home internet access was a bigger concern among districts offering remote or hybrid instruction than for those where all learning was happening in person. It was also significantly more likely to be a major challenge for educators in districts with higher poverty rates than for their peers in lower-poverty districts (75 percent vs. 54 percent). Private school educators were also less likely to report major student home internet challenges (34 percent), compared with public school educators (70 percent).


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