A Definitional Problem

Last month we put out a new analysis at Bellwether, Common Ground*, about the landscape the sector is operating in. I wrote a short post about it here.

We identified six common themes we are seeing across a range of issues, from DEI to school enrollment. One that warrants more attention in my view is the pervasive definitional confusion that is distorting educational debates today and causing people to talk past one another. There are real divides, yes, but there is also more common ground than people realize.

For instance, to use two hot-button issues that are in the news a lot lately, when we talk about teaching about gender and sexuality in school the specific age of students matters a lot. People are, understandably, a lot more concerned with what content is taught in say K-3 than middle and high school. That’s not to say objections go away where older kids are concerned, but there is a lot less opposition. Likewise, there is a big difference between a school concealing active measures they are taking from parents and just giving students some degree of privacy in their lives or turning teachers into cops. Those distinct issues are commonly conflated leading to a lot of avoidable confusion and angst.

BLM is another good example. You’re often asked, ‘do you support Black Lives Matter?’ Are we talking about the plain meaning of those three words? Then of course. The overall political agenda of the organization? Or specifics of that agenda – some of which aren’t even supported by a majority of Black Americans? All three of those questions are important, but they are three quite different questions that will elicit different answers from different people. The reason supporters and opponents conflate those things is to obscure not reveal. It’s about power, not illumination.

Book “bannings” are another. There are some folks who want to go back to the 1950s, but there are others who just want to limit access to explicit content without parental approval. People also disagree on what’s explicit and there is a lot of confusion about various books – that many people arguing about them on all sides have never read. Censorious instincts abound and are nothing new in education. We’d have a healthier conversation if people made more clear what they are and are not talking about.

And of course school shootings. Definitions of what constitutes a school shooting vary widely – from stray bullets hitting school facilities at any time day or night to narrow definitions of intentional gun violence in a school. Some activists try to hype the numbers to call attention to the problem. The result is a lot of confusion about prevalence.

Words like equity have lost all precision. Fiscal equity or equity work that focuses on addressing achievement gaps by providing more support to students who are further behind is a great distance from some of what now flies under the banner of “equity” work.

Or “anti-racism?” Are we talking about being against racism, or specific aspects of work by writers like Ibram X. Kendi or Tema Okun? Or something else? People – on all sides – often don’t say, and there is a reason for that.

In the end it all creates a lot of confusion that obscures genuine points of disagreement – and consensus. My point here is not that your views should be dictated by public opinion – on the contrary. My point is merely that we might have a healthier and less toxic conversation if we were more clear on what we’re talking about in the first place.

(Another piece of this dynamic is how infrequently people read underlying documents or materials. It’s remarkable how often the discourse about some issue or event diverges from the facts – especially on social media).

Some politicians, I’m thinking in particular of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, are becoming adept at exploiting this. They let the public characterization of an issue diverge from the plain letter of some policy and that allows them to marginalize their critics as hysterical or dishonest. Others use vagueness to their advantage to obscure positions that are popular with activists but not the general public. Twitter is rocket fuel for this problem especially as our politics become polarized and zero sum.

Look, we’re all going to make mistakes. And we’re going to mischaracterize things based on misunderstandings or incomplete or imperfect communication because we’re humans. And as issues evolve how we talk about them will change, too. C’est la vie as they say. Where we can try to do better is to be as precise as possible, share definitions transparently, and avoid deliberate misinformation.

I’m not naive. Politics is what it is and some of this is par for the course. But if your role – and this especially goes for the media but also leaders more generally – is to explain and interpret then there is a lot of room to do better.

If you’re interested in learning more about some strategies and context, three books I’d recommend are Amanda Ripley’s High Conflict, Todd Rose’s Collective Illusions, and Julia Galef’s Scout Mindset. This essay by Freddie deBoer is also excellent.

ICYMI – Bellwether also released a look at some plays on school finance equity. In the spirit of this post that means ensuring funding and funding effort is allocated based more on need than is commonly the case today. It’s interesting, and certainly not the worst thing, that two related areas of education policy that are seeing a lot of attention recently are finance and also school choice. Stay tuned on that.

Guestpost: Kris Amundson On Parents

Kris Amundson is a former Democratic state legislator in Virginia, she’s been a school board member in Fairfax County, and she led NASBE as its CEO. Her book on the pandemic and education was a good look at that mess and on the holiday book list. She’s currently a consultant – and a good savvy advisor for entities navigating today’s tortuous education politics. In a recent conversation she was sharing an account of some time she’d recently spent in Honduras – she spends a fair amount of time in Central America – and I said, that’s interesting, would you write up? She graciously did. Enjoy:

Early in December, I spent time at a college graduation in Honduras. Afterward, the young parents in attendance began talking, as young parents often do, about their kids and school. 

Except for the fact that everyone was speaking Spanish, the discussion could have taken place in any living room in the U.S. These parents made it clear that the effects of the pandemic and school closures have not gone away. Their kids are still struggling in school. They are behind where these parents knew they should be. And the schools are not giving the help they need.

One mom compared the work her current second grader was doing to the work her older sister had done in the year before COVID. “It’s not the same,” she said. “I know where she should be, and she’s not there.” 

For these parents, worries about education have a special resonance. All of them grew up in poverty. (And as Sen. Tim Kaine sometimes says, “There’s poor and then there’s poor in Honduras.” They were poor in Honduras.) It was only because of hard work and scholarships (many provided by a scholarship foundation I helped found) that they themselves had arrived in the middle class.

As a result, they are laser-focused on making sure their children’s hard-won educational opportunities are not wasted. So they ask their schools to send home additional activities to help close learning gaps. They devote time every night to tackling the gaps they know exist.

But they don’t always feel like schools are their partners. Yes, students get some remediation in school, but it’s hard to address the learning issues of a large group of students if each one is missing a different skill. 

These Honduran moms were saying what I have heard from many American parents.   When I was doing research for my new book Unfinished Learning: Parents, Schools, and the COVID School Closures, I heard the same worries over and over. One young dad almost broke my heart when he said, “When it comes down to it, the pandemic made me realize that families are fundamentally on our own.”  

That worry is what makes young American parents I know anxiously exchange recommendations for phonics reading workbooks. It’s also, I am afraid, a big reason that so many parents are leaving public schools.

When Dan Goldhaber recently spoke about the “urgency gap” in discussing a CALDER study about COVID recovery, he was addressing those anxieties. Schools need to listen. 

Parents also need a more honest view of how their kids are doing. My Honduran mom friends, who themselves only recently became members of the middle class, are much more clear-eyed about where they want their kids to be.

In Central America and in the US, what parents really want is for some accurate information . . . and some action . . . on helping their kids recover from COVID learning loss.

Kris Amundson is a former school board member, state legislator, and CEO of NASBE. 

Schools & Transitions In The Times

Thoughtful deep dive in The Times on transgender youth and when it’s appropriate for schools to withhold information from parents. Notably, The Times seems to be breaking the taboo that this whole thing is just conservatives whipping up an issue.

I wrote about this a few months ago – short version I think it’s only OK to conceal things K-12 schools are doing with students from parents when safety is involved and then only until the situation can be stabilized. There is a lot more concern about this idea that it’s ok to cut parents out among clinicians than activists. The Times talks with Erica Anderson.

The real flashpoint is going to be some unsettled First Amendment questions about teacher rights. Those are in the courts and bear watching.

Related to that, this part of the Times article struck me,

“Educators have also said they feel bound by their own morality to affirm students’ gender identities, especially in cases where students don’t feel safe coming out at home.”

Leave aside that affirming and actively concealing your actions from parents are two different things, this is not good ground to fight this issue out on.

Advocates and some educators seem not to get that there are other educators who feel bound by a different sense of morality. Some don’t want to use a student’s preferred pronouns – even when the student’s parents request it. Some think that gay kids are somehow defective or wrong. Like the idea of “lived experience,” personal conceptions of morality are a bad way to govern actions in the public sector. They’re not falsifiable. They are arbitrary in a pluralistic society.

In the public schools – and the public sector more generally – you’re not bound by your own morality. You’re bound by the law. It’s why you can’t, for instance, decide to not issue marriage licenses to gay couples if you’re a public official. That’s the other side of this same culture war coin. On any particular issue you may not get the result you personally prefer, but it’s less capricious and preferable to unilateral action by state actors based on their own feelings. That basic idea is getting lost here.

If you’re on the side of the debate where public opinion is not yet on your side – you should be especially cautious about claiming that conceptions of morality are grounds for individual action by state actors. Yes, sometimes defying laws is part of changing them. In this instance, however, we’re talking about kids and their parents and families.

And, yes, the law here is a mess right now. What rights young people do and don’t have objectively makes little sense across the states and within particular states. But in a liberal society the law is the best we’ve got. It’s more stable and predictable than any person’s individual sense of what’s moral. Danger that way lies for public schools and more generally.

A colleague remarked recently that everyone he knows who has gone off to the culture wars comes back wounded. I’m worried that will be true for the public schools as well.

One other note on this. It’s the kind of issue where people are going to disagree in good faith. And one where I suspect society will evolve. My own view is that we’ll become much more welcoming toward kids (and adults) who express themselves in ways that don’t correspond with biological sex but much more restrained on medicalization of gender issues for kids. Other countries are already moving that way. In a decade or so people will wonder why we fought about pronouns so much but other aspects of today’s debate won’t age well at all.

At the same time, what’s startling to me is the intensity of preference falsification here. There are conservatives who are fairly libertarian about how people should live their lives and just want to ensure schools aren’t getting front of families. They should speak up more. And plenty of people on the left who don’t think schools should conceal transitions from parents feel pressured not to say so (or want to signal group solidarity). Everyone, especially these kids, would be a lot better off with a more honest conversation.

ICYMI – Bellwether released a deck last week that had a little data related to this issue and a lot on a variety of political and cultural issues affecting schools.

Is There Common Ground? There’s A Report At Least…

Today Bellwether released a stocktaking analysis on a few key issues in the education sector – enrollment, achievement, guns, discipline, LGBT rights, and curriculum. You know, the non-controversial stuff. It’s the first of a regular series but they won’t all be on these issues.

Across the range of issues we look at today, a few trends stand out.

Implementation. There is a sadly predictable arc in education. Good idea gets picked up widely, implemented with little fidelity to whatever made it effective in the first place, idea gets discredited. We seem to be seeing that in several of our current hot house debates. On school discipline poor implementation of discipline reforms, in some cases seriously poor implementation that creates safety issues, is calling that project into question. And exclusionary discipline seems to be on the rise again.

On DEI work the rapid uptake has led to widespread quality control problems on top of underlying questions about what’s the best way create more diverse and inclusive organizations.

And on some hot button curriculum and culture war issues it’s freelancing by teachers garnering the headlines because teachers aren’t getting the support they need to be successful.

Common Ground. The title of the report is “Common Ground” because there is more common ground on many of these issues than you’d know listening to the loudest voices and professional conflict entrepreneurs. On a range of issues people agree more than you’d think. And sometimes more than they would think.

But it’s not all common ground – and public schools are the societal common ground where many of these issues get hashed out – now and historically. When you look at the polarization on some issues as well as societal problems. for instance gun violence – it’s not surprising we see these issues show up in one of our last common institutions – the public schools.

Our goal with this work isn’t to tell you what to think. Or to suggest that you should take your views from what a majority thinks about any given issue. You do you, please. We need more of that. Instead, like other similar work from Bellwether the goal is to share a view of the landscape to hopefully inform debate and conversation grounded in facts not narratives.

Rather than belabor it here, go read the deck yourself, it’s a lot of content across some important issues.

You can read Common Ground here.

2023 Eduwonk In and Out List

The dust has settled from the New Year, resolutions, lists, and so forth. So back again (here’s last year), the Eduwonk In and Out list. Here’s an unscientific, impressionistic, and often informed by “don’t tell anyone I sent this email” missives from colleagues, take on what’s coming and going in 2023.

Look for a more serious stocktaking analysis from BW later this month.

What’s Out What’s In
Arguing about what to call learning lossIgnoring learning loss
School board fights about CRTSchool board fights about budget cuts
Teacher shortageTeacher union member shortage 
Race-based affirmative actionClass-based affirmative action 
Savings rate Education savings accounts
Wishful thinking on academic recovery after COVIDWishful thinking on school enrollment after COVID
Ken Paxton Jason Miyares 
Scale Microschools 
Focusing on Centering
Students don’t write enough in schoolAI writes too much in school
Demanding billions in emergency pandemic relief Questioning billions in emergency pandemic relief
Quiet Quitting Quiet use of the SAT 
Reading WarsScience of Reading wars 
Parents’ rights on curriculumParents’ rights on academic progress
Political red wavesPolitical Red Weddings 
Stereotyping Cultural competence 
CovidJohn Bailey’s Covid newsletter 
Book banning Trolling 
Accountability Choice 
Portfolios Mergers 
Celebrating excellence Assuaging pissed-off parents 
TwitterTwitter
RetreatsResorts 
The right using LGBT kids as political props Right and left using LGBT kids as political props 
Diligence Blank checks 
DataStories
North v. South Texas v. California 
Happenstance Navigators 
Drag shows as transgressive fun Drag shows as virtue signaling 
Student loan forgiveness Student loan lawsuits 
Loudoun County controversy Fairfax County controversy  
Cultural Marxism Cultural nihilism 
Let teachers teach!Teachers as social workers and therapists
RandBernie 
Asynchronous Face time

Education Politics Are Mostly Downside

A conversation that has always stuck with me is when about a decade ago Jeb Bush remarked that in terms of electoral politics education hadn’t really helped him at the state level. He basically did his politics elsewhere, he said, and did education because it was a policy area he cared about. Florida under Bush is one of the education success stories of the past quarter century. Yet that didn’t really help him when he ran for president. Elite journalists respected it, as did the wonks. The average Republican primary voter? Meh. His education record – validated by NAEP and independent evaluations – led to more success for his non-profit education policy organization than in national political races.

Sure, education can help you electorally. Jeb’s brother George used the issue to signal to voters that he wasn’t slash and burn like Newt Gingrich or Tom DeLay. Earlier Bill Clinton used education reform and support for charter schools to cue voters that he was a “new” kind of Democrat, not beholden to party orthodoxy. But that’s framing, not policy specifics. Even today a lot of voters are confused about what charter schools are so in 1992 you can be sure most were more attracted to the new and reform flavor of the idea than the policy.

The first President Bush actually worked with then-governor Clinton on education policy reform at a landmark summit in Charlottesville, Virginia. A lot of good it did him. And Clinton’s two terms had more two do with economics and social policy reform than with specific education policies under his watch. Ironically, one of Clinton’s most politically popular reforms, class sizes reeducation, wasn’t a great one on the specifics but allowed him to beat the hell out of Republicans in budget fights. George W. Bush’s presidency faltered on foreign adventures. No amount of education results or policy, no matter how much they cut against type for Republicans could offset that.

Jimmy Carter? He set up the modern Department of Education and got 49 electoral votes in 1980 for his trouble. Lyndon Johnson? He was pretty good on education but when more than 1,000 Americans a month are dying in Vietnam that hardly matters. You get the idea: At the national level elections generally turn on economics or other macro factors.

In practice, for the most part education is one of those political issues that is almost all downside – even when you get it right. That’s not just because kids are too young to vote or people who lack political power and need educational power lack political power. Those are obvious reasons. It’s also because, in plain terms, there is more downside to the risk than upside to the success. And success takes time to show itself and the benefits of success are diffuse. The political hits? They are mostly in the here and now. They are concentrated. Politicians are understandably concerned with the here and now and with concentrated power, because that’s what drives politics.

A few obvious examples.

Assessment reform and innovation is a vital issue but it mostly leads to attacks that you’re for more testing or spending more on testing. Sure, strong majorities of Americans get that testing is a transparency, empowerment, and accountability tool. Yet there is no nuance there even though large scale assessment is complicated and nuanced because organized resistance to assessment is potent. That’s why politicians like Beto O’Rourke, who is certainly smart enough to know better, campaign on just getting rid of rests.

Education standards. Time in school is not infinite, so choices have to be made about what framework is important for students to know by the time they leave high school. Otherwise you get meaningless standards teachers can’t use because they’re too vague or demand more time than schools have. But almost everything left out will be important to someone. They will argue about it and often attack politically. It’s an unwinnable battle in the here and now. What’s more, little credit accrues to having good standards.

Common Core. A lot of states quietly shifted to Common Core-like standards and behind the scenes even some Republican governors tried to keep the train on the tracks. That’s hard because “Common Core” remains a political punching bag. That’s a real problem for a politician who wants to at once improve schools but stay politically viable in a climate where both right and left are upset about the new standards.

Teacher evaluation or accountability. You can certainly argue that trying to shift from evaluating basically no one to evaluating everyone on a fast time table was going to cause problems. I argued that! But politically there is a reason accountability of any kind is so hard. Present costs, that are concentrated, future benefits that are diffuse. Little credit for getting it right, lots of pain for getting it right or wrong.

All this is because most education policy runs into the classic problem of the general interest versus special interests in a political system where the general interest is diffuse and disorganized, the special interests are concentrated and organized. In many cases, especially in education, special interests have more power and interest for punishing for transgressions than rewarding for taking risks. This is a problem on all issues, not just education. It affects gun policy or tax policy, too. And despite the happy talk, there are no win wins. In our sector, more school choice means more power for parents and less for school systems. More accountability means more information for parents and the public but less control of that information by school systems. People use lots of vague language to try to straddle these tensions but at the end of the day every major decision represents a shift of power from one constituency to another.

So is it hopeless? No, I don’t think so.

School choice is something of an exception here. Choice builds a constituency of satisfied parents. Politically its greatest hurdle is initial enactment. It also disrupts systems of power. But school choice, too, activates substantial special interest opposition. That makes it a challenge of electoral politics, less of governmental politics. Yet as the lines between those two kinds of politics become increasingly blurred (or even unrecognizable) it can still be a challenge. Years ago the teachers union in Indianapolis decided to go to the city council to make a run at ending the (Democratic) mayor’s charter school initiative there. Hundreds of parents showed up to support the charters. That was more or less the end of that and Indianapolis parents continue to enjoy a lot of choices. There is a lesson there.

In addition, voters still reward competence. Joe Biden didn’t win in 2020 because voters had suddenly decided Washington, DC and the federal government were OK after all. They just could see that Donald Trump was manifestly incompetent. That’s why in a state like Virginia – with a lot of federal and military personnel – Biden could run up big margins one year and Glenn Youngkin could be elected governor the next. And Youngkin’s win was in part about education pragmatism. Here in education, the biggest problem with George Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy was Bush’s Iraq War policy. It was, and still basically is, impossible to get a fair hearing on the NCLB policy or an accurate accounting of it – did you know Ted Kennedy clashed with Bush on the funding but not on the accountability rules? Clinton’s handling of education made him look pragmatic and competent. The pundit class ridiculed Clinton’s idea of school uniforms, parents loved it. We’ll see what happens but in Pennsylvania Josh Shapiro seems to have taken heed of this lesson.

So if you’re an advocate, parent empowerment and choice are good ways to go. They build constituencies. If you’re a politician competence is – and that includes trying to balance competing pressures in education rather than just pandering. That’s how you reap any upside there is to education politics. Just be pragmatic and do a good job. Another thing Clinton used to say is that good policy is good politics. It’s unfortunately not that simple or linear, but on an issue like education it’s the best bet you have. Otherwise, politically, it’s mostly downside.

Edujobs, Articles, And A Podcast

Happy New Year.

I sat down with Jim Cowen just before the holidays to talk education policy on his podcast. Among other topics, why are the Democrats against parent’s rights instead of competing for that mantle? And why is it so hard to tell parents the truth about school performance?

Michelle Croft, Alex Spurier, Julie Squire and I took a look at the midterms and what’s up in 2023.

We have a job open at Bellwether – Database Associate. If you are into Salesforce, Sharepoint, and other internal systems and supporting and being part of a technical support team in the education sector, this role might be for you.

NASBE (disclosure, I’m a member!) is hiring a Communications Intern. This role is part time and paid, spring or summer. Big selling point here is you get to work with Renee Lang, a real pro and great person in our sector.

My 2023 wish for you: Independence of thought and action. This sector desperately needs it. Here’s Jesse Signal on one aspect of that and TaraElla the same.

ICYMI – here are some book (and music) recommendations.

Pro tip: If your DEI firm or consultant or chief whatever officer tells you that something like this is a good idea as an equity or inclusion play…find a better one or use some common sense and DIY. There is a lot of loose talk about who is out to destroy public education. It’s in no small part an inside job and if you love public schools, well, speak up.

2022 Holiday Book List

Late to holiday shopping? Still need a stocking stuffer? This list will, sort of, help. Here’s the 2022 Eduwonk Holiday Book list. This year we’ve got some education books and some general interest ones. And music, plus a musician’s children’s book.

Let’s start with the education books.

Depending who you ask we need a reckoning about policy choices and advocacy during the pandemic or we need an amnesty. I guess I’d settle for a forward-looking conversation that is not anchored in relitigating the politics of the pandemic. Kris Amundson’s Unfinished Learning is a step in that direction. Kris is a former elected Democrat in Virginia. But this is a book informed by an understanding of politics, it’s not a partisan book. Some sharp observations about how we got where we are.

The answer to a surprising number of questions about education is – you know who wrote a good book about that? Dan Willingham. UVA’s Willingham is well-regarded by reformers, by the AFT (he writes frequently for their house magazine) and in general. With good reason. His work is rigorous, accessible, and grounded in what the evidence says. He’s also a wonderful person. His new book Outsmart Your Brain isn’t aimed at wonks – it’s aimed at students and teachers. It’s a user-friendly how to about learning and growing. It can also help with focus – so in addition to high school and college students and their parents and teachers perhaps social media-addled wonks might want this in their stocking, too? Except, they can’t have it. I’m coming to you from a review copy. With an inexplicable Grinch-like release date you’ll have to wait until January to read it. But, you can pre-order now – a big help to authors and Willingham really is deserving – and perhaps leave a picture under the tree?

How many people get a Supreme Court case named after them? Especially a high profile and high impact one. From her time as state school chief in Ohio, Susan Zelman’s name is now shorthand for the legal basis for school choice programs that include parochial schools. Yet her new book, written with Margaret Sorenson, isn’t about that. Rather it’s a quick primer on major aspects of the education system and then an idea for a broad pluralistic vision of schooling. If the most wonderful time of the year for you includes thinking about a book to adopt for a course this is a great choice. And it would be useful as reading for any of the common ground initiatives now springing up around the sector.

When Richard Whitmire would write about the problems boys were having in school it was treated like a zero sum game – as though paying attention to the boys inevitably would mean less attention to girls or worse. I have daughters (Whitmire does, too) and can give you chapter and verse about some the BS that happens in schools. That doesn’t mean boys aren’t also facing serious issues. Brookings’ Richard Reeves new book Of Boys and Men makes clear we better pay attention to the problems faced by boys and men, especially those on the lower end of the economic ladder. I’m in a lot of conversations about equity, or structural inequality, or diversity and inclusion and the data and analysis Reeves presents rarely shows up. That’s a problem.

More general interest:

To date (and hopefully for some time to come….) Grover Cleveland is the only U.S. President to serve non-consecutive terms. When people asked what I was reading and I said a really interesting biography of Grover Cleveland it usually occasioned a, ‘wait what?’ or ‘that’s funny but seriously…?’ It’s true! In Man of Iron Troy Senik delivers an engaging account of Cleveland’s life and improbable rise to the pinnacle of American politics. It’s about the politics of a different era but a good reminder that not everything we consider unprecedented is.

A lot of people have an older relative or know someone who was born a few decades too early and lived a more constrained life than they might today because of how LGBT Americans were forced to live for a long time. James Kirchick’s Secret City does double duty. It’s a gossipy and interesting glimpse into a thankfully vanishing part of the American experience – life in a closeted era. And it’s a fascinating history of Washington, D.C. Most of all, it’s a good reminder of the lost potential when freedom takes a backseat.

There is an annoying quality to America’s gun debate where the views of people who don’t appreciate why something is called a suppressor rather than a silencer or don’t get the difference between .22 and .223 are dismissed as illegitimate. Sort of an expertise gatekeeping. At the same time a lot of people do seem not to appreciate why a lot of Americans, who also are horrified by gun violence, nonetheless seek firearms out as a tool, a hobby, or a sporting pursuit. In Gun Barons, John Bainbridge Jr. takes a lively look at the men behind iconic firearms that defined an era and echo into ours. The names some Americans revere today and others revile – Winchester, Remington, or Smith and Wesson – were real people who invented and profited mightily from innovations in firearms. Even if you don’t care to know a clip from a magazine or a cartridge from a bullet it’s the history of an era not just of firearms. And perhaps a bit of common ground to inform our “what now?” conversation about guns in 2022.

Finally, some music notes: Regular readers know that I think the last decade produced two genuine musical geniuses Rhiannon Giddens and Sturgill Simpson. Fight me Swifties. Giddens’ entire catalog is music a music lover will enjoy exploring. She’s emerged as an essential chronicler of the roots music tradition as well. And she has a children’s book out this year.

Simpson, who ranges across genres, spent the pandemic returning to his roots. His catalog is hard to describe, just listen. He and Steven Colbert showed up in Greenland recently and he produced Brit Taylor’s forthcoming album.

Finally, Tedeschi Trucks Band might be the best live act on the road right now. Especially this time of year when they’re playing smaller theaters rather than big outdoor venues. Their new concept album, I Am The Moon, is based on a 12th-Century Persian poem and at four albums is an epic undertaking and would make an amazing gift. It’s available in a few formats, I have the vinyl and recommend.

Still not finding what you want, here are past year’s lists.

Loudoun County Situation Is Probably Worse Than You Thought – Certainly Worse Than You Were Told.

Over the past year and a half I wrote a few posts on Loudoun County and how the “narrative” about it was often at odds with the facts on the ground. From an October 2021 post:

A common response to those posts was the idea this Loudoun controversy was all partisan, it was transphobic, it was much ado about nothing. In fact, the local newspaper, The Washington Post, could barely be bothered to report on it in any depth until today. It was freelance journalist Matt Taibbi – far from a local – who did the most definitive deep dive.

This is the key takeaway from a grand jury report released today about Loudoun’s handling of two sexual assaults:

There really aren’t words for such a failure of institutional responsibility to young people. It reminds me a lot of Parkland although thankfully no one was killed.

The report also includes chapter and verse of the school division’s effort to thwart this investigation. Too much to pull quote here, but if you think this entire parents rights and transparency issue is BS that Glenn Youngkin cooked up, well just read it.

Education media, that assiduously managed to avoid this story, might ask themselves why? The role of journalists is to ferret out facts, not parrot political narratives. That it was the Daily Wire or Taibbi looking into this rather than, or at least in addition to, our sector’s ed media (and hometown paper The Post) is a blemish on the sector. Stuff like this is inexplicable, a kid was raped. A preventable assault happened.

The tell should have been that every time, multiple times, the courts had an opportunity to shut down this investigation they didn’t. The most sensational narratives – from the idea on the right that trans students were marauding in bathrooms to the idea on the left that this was all BS – should have been suspect. But it was clear something was going on and local officials were not being transparent.

Education advocates and leaders might ask why they, too, as with Parkland, lost their voice in the face of a politically complicated set of circumstances where, again, we are talking about fundamental issues of student safety.

Seems like that applies more broadly than just LCPS?

Tim Daly: What if we have the narrative of pandemic learning loss wrong?

Parenting is a constant set of failures, small and big, only outweighed by all the love and joy. When I think about parenting moves where I would like a mulligan, technology and screens are at the top of the list. So recently in Chicago with Tim Daly we were brainstorming the trends on learning loss various data are highlighting. When he mentioned screens I asked, more please? Tim’s CEO of Ed Navigator. Here’s his take:

By Tim Daly

Until recently, there has seemed to be a consensus about the pandemic and education: remote schooling was ineffective. Teachers struggled to teach and students struggled to learn. The longer students spent at-home, the more substantial were their learning setbacks. One study after another found this to be true.

But do difficulties associated with school closures capable explain all of the recent declines in student achievement? Especially after the most recent NAEP results found only a tenuous relationship between school re-opening patterns and state performance, I worry that we may be overlooking other factors. After all, worrisome trends were surfacing before the pandemic. 

In 2020, national results from the Long-Term Trend Reading Assessment showed that scores for our lowest performing nine year-old readers – those at the 10 percentile of the distribution – had dropped precipitously to compared to the last time the test was administered, in 2012. The pandemic couldn’t be the cause because students completed the assessments just before it began. 

In the first decade of the 2000s, the story was quite different. Lower performing readers were improving rapidly and chipping away at the gaps between themselves and their higher performing peers. It felt like a success story. By 2012, though, the gains plateaued. Due to budget cuts, the Long-Term Trend Reading Assessment was not offered again for eight years. Then, in 2020, the average score for 10thpercentile readers plummeted. There was no comparable drop for high performers at the 75th or 90th percentiles.

Why? Several plausible explanations have been suggested, from the lingering effects of the 2008 economic crash on lower income households to the introduction of Common Core. But I can’t stop wondering about one in particular: screen time. 

Screen time for American children has been on the rise for years. According to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, the average child in 1997 aged 0 to 2 years experienced 1.32 hours of screen time. By 2014, such children averaged over three hours. Researchers reported significant differences across demographic groups, with more screen exposure for infants and toddlers whose families had lower incomes and levels of parental education.

A separate study examined screen usage among children aged 9 and 10 using data collected between 2016 and 2018. The authors found average screen time was 3.99 hours per day. Notably, over an hour of that time was spent streaming videos, which makes sense given the technological innovations that had made streaming more accessible by 2016.  YouTube launched in 2005. The iPhone arrived in 2007. And in 2010, Apple supercharged the market for kid-friendly tablets with its introduction of the iPad. The balance of screen time began shifting from big screens (televisions, computer monitors) to little ones – and children born around the time of the 2008 financial crash were the first generation to have widespread interactions with these tools during their early years.

One can’t help but notice that during the same span when screen time surged – particularly for less-privileged children – we found ourselves facing significant new challenges with struggling readers.

A connection between screen time and literacy performance shifts seems plausible. Young children who spend hours streaming videos each day are not interacting with adults or forming rich conversation habits that build a foundation for literacy. We know that high screen time was not distributed evenly – rather, it was more common in households where students already faced higher risks in learning to read. 

Why does this matter? For me, it raises the possibility the traditional narrative of the pandemic is incomplete. If students are struggling because schools closed, the best solution is not just to get students back to in-person learning but to replace the lost instructional time with extended days/years, high dosage tutoring, and so forth. That’s largely what we’ve been doing.

But there’s an alternative explanation that encompasses more than the pandemic. Under this scenario, by 2020 we had been living through more than a decade of innovation in personal electronic devices that put screens literally in the hands of young children for the first time. Parents eagerly embraced the flexibility of entertainment and learning options – and some kids ended up on screens far more than pediatricians advised. Fewer children were reading for fun, with increasing numbers not doing it at all. All of this happened outside of school.

Then, at a moment when the effects of screen time were already becoming evident for a subset of learners, kids began to spend more time on their screens than ever before. School was screens. Free time was screens. What else was there to do? By April 2020, the average US child was on YouTube for 97 minutes per day.

So, what does screen time look like today? Data from Common Sense Media suggests that screen usage remained at elevated levels through 2021, when most schools were open full-time, and that video streaming was now the most preferred screen activity for tweens and teens. Once again, children in lower income households spent far more time on screens.

Meanwhile, newly released results for the Long-Term Trend Reading Assessment show a continuation of pre-pandemic trends, with 10thpercentile nine year-olds suffering substantial losses compared to 2020 while the highest performing students seem barely affected by the pandemic. If the pandemic forced all students to learn remotely for some length of time, why did only some students learn substantially less?

It’s not a slam dunk case. There are reasons to doubt that screen time is behind our present literacy struggles. For one thing, math scores showed a similar pattern of general improvement for 10th percentile performers until the 2012 administration of the Long Term Trend exam, then a drop in 2020 and a larger drop in 2022. Because math learning generally happens in school and tends to be less influenced by what’s happening at-home, this may suggest that the root of the problem is instructional rather than screen-related.

Nonetheless, the issue of rising screen time for educationally vulnerable children deserves more consideration. We may discover that a key strategy for getting our students back on-track can be executed only through partnership with parents who have greater ability than schools to influence how much time their children spend on devices and what they’re accessing. 

Tim Daly is CEO of EdNavigator.