Is The Sky Really Falling? Maybe Let The Crisis Rhetoric Go To Waste?

This Washington Post article from over the weekend is getting a lot of attention.

Sounds serious!

But is this really the case? I’m not here to be “everything is going swimmingly and you can’t see it” guy. (Or “don’t let a crisis go to waste” guy.)

Things aren’t good! We should be working with focus and urgency to make them better. But we’ve gone from a set of problems (largely not being effectively addressed and some self-inflicted) to downright apocalyptic rhetoric.

It’s almost as though people want a crisis of epic proportions, and are willing one into being. Perhaps because then you can be part of something big, which is a natural human instinct. Or it works for politics. Regardless, it’s hyperbole leaders ought to ignore and certainly not stoke. All pull quotes below from the article.

“The temperature is way up to a boiling point,” said Nat Malkus, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. “If it isn’t a crisis now, you never get to crisis.”

First, someone please just give Nat a hug. The pandemic has certainly created a crisis for some kids – disproportionately those who were facing a quiet education crisis pre-pandemic. But is it really a nationwide crisis? I don’t want to go all New York Times pitchbot on you, but there are plenty of places you could write the, “Are schools in crisis? They don’t think so at this Ohio elementary…”

Experts reach for comparisons. The best they can find is the earthquake following Brown v. Board of Education, when the Supreme Court ordered districts to desegregate and White parents fled from their cities’ schools. That was decades ago.

No. This is not Massive Resistance. Don’t take my word for it, look it up or ask someone who was there. Mobilizing the National Guard because you’re short bus drivers is nothing like mobilizing the guard or activating the 101st Airborne to keep officials from defying federal law. People questioning mask policies or vaccine mandates is nothing like communities closing their schools in lieu of integrating or physically harassing and threatening children integrating schools. Some idiots have suggested defying federal law, but it’s not happening at any scale. Meanwhile, Virginia Governor Glen Youngkin suggested everyone should listen to their local principal and follow the law while courts sort out mask litigation and everyone lost their minds.

Teresa Rennie, an eighth-grade math and science teacher in Philadelphia, said in 11 years of teaching, she has never referred this many children to counseling.

Yes – and we’re on the heels of two years of intense disruption. But mental health issues with kids were rising before 2020. It’s a big issue made worse by the pandemic, some responses to the pandemic – and probably everyone running around saying we’re in a crisis of epic proportions and ratcheting up the stress.

“Some students are recovering and doing just fine. Other people are not,” [McKinsey’s Emma Dorn] said. “I’m particularly worried there may be a whole cohort of students who are disengaged altogether from the education system.”

This is my concern, too. A dropout echo a decade from now. The focus on the students most at risk from learning loss (or whatever the cottage industry instructing us on what to call it is calling it now) is essential. It’s diluted, politically and substantively by crisis rhetoric.

Many educators predict that fed-up teachers will probably quit, exacerbating the problem. And they say political attacks add to the burnout. Teachers are under scrutiny over lesson plans, and critics have gone after teachers unions, which for much of the pandemic demanded remote learning.

“It’s just created an environment that people don’t want to be part of anymore,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “People want to take care of kids, not to be accused and punished and criticized.”

People said exactly the same stuff before the pandemic. They were saying this at the dawn of the NCLB-era. There were big reports in the 80s about the impending crisis. Shortages of teachers in some subjects and some geographies are a longstanding problem, but the data do not yet support the idea there is a massive outflow or crisis. Meanwhile, a significant percentage of teachers always say they’re thinking about leaving. The base rate is high to begin with though usually not reported. Leadership turnover could end up being a bigger challenge.

It is worth watching, and among classified staff education is clearly not immune to the broader labor issues affecting the American economy. A lot of this, though, is old wine in new crisis rhetoric bottles.

At the same time, charter schools, which are privately run but publicly funded, saw enrollment increase by 7 percent, or nearly 240,000 students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. There’s also been a surge in home schooling. Private schools saw enrollment drop slightly in 2020-21 but then rebound this academic year, for a net growth of 1.7 percent over two years, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, which represents 1,600 U.S. schools.

If you are the system, the good news? These numbers will come back down. Bad news, not entirely and it doesn’t take big percentages to really disrupt finance for local school districts. That’s been a trend to watch for some time. And right now districts and charters are awash in funds. It’s a longer term issue.

From the article:

National data for the current school year is not yet available. But if the trend continues, that will mean less money for public schools as federal and state funding are both contingent on the number of students enrolled. For now, schools have an infusion of federal rescue money that must be spent by 2024.

That is pretty much word for word not a crisis right now? Especially because infusion means like $200 billion for K-12. Potentially a longer term problem though, we’ll see what happens. That’s probably a lousy headline.

Last school year, the number of students who were chronically absent — meaning they have missed more than 10 percent of school days — nearly doubled from before the pandemic, according to data from a variety of states and districts studied by EveryDay Labs, a company that works with districts to improve attendance.

This is a big problem – at Bellwether we’ve been calling attention to it for a while. Yet during much of the pandemic it was not a concern for a lot of leaders. Everyone knew that significant percentages of kids were not logging on at all or had vanished but serious and allegedly responsible people were saying things like, ‘they’re learning in other ways’ or ‘don’t criticize, schools are doing the best they can.’ People were pissed when you suggested we might have to think about outdoor summer school in 2020. Now it’s a crisis? It was a crisis in May of 2020. Now it’s a problem we have to solve.

The Center for Homeland Defense and Security, which maintains its own database of K-12 school shootings using a different methodology, totaled nine active shooter incidents in schools in 2021, in addition to 240 other incidents of gunfire on school grounds. So far in 2022, it has recorded 12 incidents. The previous high, in 2019, was 119 total incidents.

Most teachers I talk with say they are seeing more anti-social behavior, fights, and so forth. Data point that way. And all of that is scary if you’re a parent – but there are more than 100,000 schools. We should be careful with context.

Some of what we’re seeing overall is instrumentality. When you start to pay attention to things you perceive more of them or the media climate hypes them creating a reinforcing cycle. Shark attacks in a particular season, for instance, are a classic example. You can also think a trend is running in a different direction because of attention on it. Police shootings were down over the last decade, for example, even as, or perhaps because of, more attention on them in the mass media. So were school shootings. Again, base rates matter, too.

There is now a lot of attention on the schools so that results in a lot of attention on the schools.

Kevin G. Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, who opposes school choice programs, sees the surge of interest as the culmination of years of work to undermine public education. He is both impressed by the organization and horrified by the results.

“I wish that organizations supporting public education had the level of funding and coordination that I’ve seen in these groups dedicated to its privatization,” he said.

Has this guy ever heard of the teachers’ unions? That’s just flatly false. There are a few races you can point to where reformers have outspent the teachers unions, but at any aggregate level that’s not the case. Also, pro tip, any time someone starts braying about privatization your radar should go up a little. There certainly are some efforts to privatize education functions, and some are commonly privatized services now. The umbrella use, however, is just rhetoric that long ago freaked out some focus group so now everyone says it. You can be sure there is not a crisis of privatization.

Also, weren’t we just talking about charter schools? They’re public.

Anyway, there was a noticeable expansion of choice options in 2021. There are a few reasons for that. It’s generally speaking a majority position (slight in some cases, strong in others like charters), people were frustrated with schools in 2021, and Republicans control a lot of state governments and some Democrats support school choice, too.

“Everything has been politicized,” said [Dan] Domenech of AASA. “You’re beside yourself saying, ‘How did we ever get to this point?’”

People are frustrated because the schools did not do a great job during Covid. Not individually, teachers did the best they could. But the various aggregate organizations and leadership did not. That’s probably why you see both support for teachers and frustration in the confused opinion research.

If there’s a crisis, it’s one of leadership. And in part leadership that decided to politicize everything.

Regardless, so much of this is not new. Outside of masks, which is almost hopelessly politicized at this point, I’m hard pressed to find a cultural issue in schools that isn’t long standing. How to teach history? Really? Book bans or curriculum debates? Not new. Some of these longstanding issues are just being grafted onto the new up to date narrative. Underneath some of the recent censorious effort around say, books, are longstanding patterns. 

Look, obviously, despite some outlier examples you don’t see education problems at any scale that got better because of the pandemic. It’s likewise hard to find an example of how the panic and crisis rhetoric helps address any of that. A cynic might say it’s a deliberate distraction.

Recently Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ flow rate got a lot of attention. He’s cool under pressure. You see that in other fields, the best paramedics are composed and intentional even in highly stressful situations or special operations personnel. In EMS, wildfire, military, and other high stress professions you often hear people say, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”

We could use some of that. The best thing we could do now is calm down, think straight, and get some results – especially for the kids who most need them. Let the crisis rhetoric go to waste.

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