Where Do Testing and Accountability Go From Here?

My Bellwether colleagues Alex Spurrier, Jenn Schiess, Andy Rotherham, and I released a set of briefs today looking at the past, present, and future of standards-based reform. Those include:

  1. In The Historical Roots and Theory of Change of Modern School Accountability, we review the history and logic behind standards-based reform to recall the foundational goals and rationale for the main strategic levers reformers were trying to pull.
  2. In The Impact of Standards-Based Accountability, we assess the strengths and weaknesses of the ways in which standards-based reform has been operationalized in policy and practice and begin to identify what should be retained and what should evolve.
  3. In Assessment and Accountability in the Wake of COVID-19, we explore what accountability may mean in a global pandemic, as challenges of equity in our education systems are exacerbated and the need to rapidly assess and address those challenges is urgent.

A forthcoming webinar will further explore these topics.

Join us on Monday July 20th for a conversation with Jeb Bush, John B. King, Jr., and Carissa Moffat Miller about how we should measure the impact of education systems on students, particular students of color and low-income students, even as COVID-19 changes schooling dramatically. Register and learn more here.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

Our Education Spending Priorities

Over at TeacherPensions.org, I updated the latest figures on school district spending. The long-term trends continue: employee benefit costs continue to eat up a larger and larger share of school district budgets.

I also took a look at more recent trends. From 2008 to 2018, here’s how much school districts increased their spending on various categories in real, per pupil terms:

Total spending: +7.3 percent

Total salaries and wages: +1.2 percent

Employee benefits: +28.9 percent

Instructional salaries and wages: -0.03 percent

All these trends are pre-COVID-19 and are likely to accelerate in the coming years.

While benefit costs were the fastest-rising category of spending, schools also spent more on student supports (up 18.7 percent in real terms), general administration (up 7.7 percent), and school administration (up 9.3 percent).

To be clear, increased benefit spending has not led to benefit improvements. Most of these cost increases are due to paying down pension debts or changes in accounting rules on retiree health benefits. Teachers should be concerned that rising educational expenditures have not led to a meaningful boost in teacher salaries.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

In a Normal Recession, Education Is One of the Biggest Losers

Will college students be more or less likely to pursue a career in teaching in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic? I can think of arguments either way, and it’s far too early to know for sure, but past recessions have pushed students away from teaching. Here’s my takeaway from a 2015 paper looking at how college students react to economic cycles:

The paper looks at the college majors of students who turned age 20 between 1960 and 2011. Then, it linked the students’ decisions with data on macroeconomic trends to examine how business cycles affect student choices. Of the 38 majors included in the study, education was the biggest loser. When recessions hit, both men and women were less likely to want to become teachers and instead turned to fields like accounting and engineering. In number terms, the researchers estimate that, “each percentage point increase in the unemployment rate…decreases the share of women choosing Early and Elementary Education by a little more than 6 percent.” (For men it was even higher.)

It’s possible that this time will be different. For one, the health implications of the novel coronavirus may force college students to make a different calculation than normal. Or, the suddenness of this recession may affect how quickly students can react or alter their prior plans. But from the financial aspect alone, we should expect fewer students to pursue teaching over the next few years than would have otherwise.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 


Are Kids Super Spreaders? The Evidence So Far Says No

I highly recommend this short piece from Emily Oster. She looks at what we know so far about whether kids are likely to catch and transmit COVID-19. We already have good evidence that kids are less likely to get sick and die from the virus than older adults.

But does that mean kids just aren’t getting sick, or are they asymptomatic carriers of the virus? Oster suggests the evidence so far is tilting toward the former:

However, in practice it seems that infection among kids is simply very unlikely.  It’s not that they are infected and don’t know it, it seems like they are just not infected very often.  And when they are, it may be that the mild symptoms limit their viral spreading….

What does this mean for policy, and for families? Opening schools and day cares and camps (PLEASE!!!) is still very complicated since these all involve congregations of adults. But on the plus side, these results indicate that in those contexts they suggest our primary concern should be adult-to-adult transmission, which may be easier to limit.

Read the full thing here.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

How Will COVID-19 Affect the Teacher Labor Market?

In a new column at The 74, Lauren Dachille and I offer five predictions, and four suggestions, for school districts struggling with hiring uncertainty in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We write:

Ultimately, while this crisis presents many challenges for districts, it may also provide an opportunity. Those places that are able to adapt to the changing teacher labor market now can have a lasting positive impact on student learning in years to come.

Read our predictions and suggestions in the full piece.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

Competency-Based Instruction, Now More Than Ever

My wife and I are privileged in lots of ways. We have books around the house, Wi-Fi, multiple connected devices, and a printer. We have flexible jobs that allow for remote work. We have a steady income and health care benefits.

Still, as the parents of two elementary-age kids in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, we were thrown into this new homeschooling experiment abruptly, as of 11:41pm on Thursday, March 12th. Two weeks later, the governor of Virginia closed schools for the rest of the year. We’re now starting week four.

Our school district has given us little more than links to the state’s grade-level standards plus some old YouTube videos. They are supposedly going to start mailing out instructional packets next week (this week is technically Spring Break from the district’s perspective.) That feels lackadaisical and insufficient, especially compared to some of the more organized responses I’ve seen elsewhere.

While I’m bitter about how little our district is doing, I want to be clear this is about district policy. My kids’ teachers have signaled that they’d like to do more but they’re being prevented from doing so.

To fill the void, my wife and I created one of those daily schedules going around social media, and we’ve been giving the kids workbooks, other printouts we find online, plus some “educational” videos like Bill Nye The Science Guy and the Mo Willems Lunch Doodles.

While there are more resources out there, particularly for online instruction, we are not anxious to plop our kids in front of a device or ask them to join Zoom meetings all day. Our priority has been keeping the kids safe and healthy, with structure and any educational benefits as secondary. Still, for my kids at least, they’re running ahead on the things they like and stagnating on things they don’t like. My second-grader, for instance, is doing fourth- or fifth-grade level work on some things while struggling with grade-level content in other areas. 

If this type of dispersion is happening among individual students, I can only imagine what it will look like at the classroom- or school-level. How will teachers handle these challenges? What systems and supports will districts put in place to identify student competencies and tailor their instruction accordingly? Will they assess students in the fall to know where they’re strong and identify areas where they need more support?

I continue to suspect that districts are mostly just trying to get through this. They’re hoping planning to re-open as normal in the fall. But if my family’s experience is any indication, we’re going to need something different. If anything, this experiment has made me much more interested in competency-based instruction, however that might be delivered.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

The COVID-19 Learning Loss

I’ve been thinking lately about this Paul von Hippel piece  for Education Next on summer learning loss. After looking closely at the data, he does not find evidence for the idea of a “summer learning loss” that particularly hinders low-income students. 

While perhaps not as compelling, von Hippel writes that there is one finding that continues to stand up:

There is one result that replicates consistently across every test that I’ve ever looked at. It’s so obvious that it’s easy to overlook, but it’s still important: nearly all children, no matter how advantaged, learn much more slowly during summer vacations than they do during the school years. That means that every summer offers children who are behind a chance to catch up. In other words, even if gaps don’t grow much during summer vacations, summer vacations still offer a chance to shrink them.

What does this mean for the extended break remote learning experiment being forced on us by COVID-19? My fear is that most education leaders will be content to take a breather this summer in the hopes that everything can resume as normal in the fall.

I think that would be a mistake on two levels. First, from a logistical standpoint, schools and districts should be preparing now for a potential second wave of outbreaks. Those outbreaks may not be as intense or as widespread, but school and district leaders have no way of knowing how bad it might be in their particular communities, and whether the coronavirus will again force them to close schools for extended periods of time. Regardless, given what we know, it would be irresponsible to blindly assume everything will be back to normal for the 2020-21 school year.

And second are the equity implications. Regardless of exactly how large the COVID-19 learning slide is going to be, there’s no question that students are losing precious learning time that will affect them for the rest of their lives. Education leaders should be thinking NOW about how they will make that up. Will they extend the current school year into the summer? Will they start the next school year early, or extend it somehow? Districts should be starting that planning process now.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

Pensions Just Don’t Work That Well for Most Teachers

Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews has a new piece on teacher pensions with a headline that reads, “So you think teacher pensions are too big? Relax. Few ever get them.”

In other words, the truth is somewhere between people who think that teacher pensions are too generous and those who think they’re just fine. Jay lets original Eduwonk Andy Rotherham explain:

Rotherham, a former adviser in the Clinton White House and a former member of the Virginia state school board, has long been a leading expert on education policy. He told me more than half of people who teach never get any kind of pension. In 16 states, you have to be teaching for 10 years before you qualify.

“People say we should reward longevity, and I think we should,” he said. “But life happens to people and lots of teachers don’t teach for decades in one place, not because they don’t love teaching, or aren’t good at it, or don’t want to, but because they have to move because of their spouse’s career, military service, a sick relative, whatever.” 

Read the full column here.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

New York Keeps Cutting Teacher Pension Benefits

New York City’s teacher pension costs have nearly quadrupled over the last 15 years. If it were a state, its teacher retirement costs would be the highest in the country. Once you include the contributions employees make to the pension plan, plus Social Security taxes, New York City is paying higher retirement rates than Chicago, which is itself an outlier. In percentage terms, the New York City and its employees are contributing more than 50 percent of salary toward retirement benefits.

And yet, as I note in a new report out this week, New York keeps cutting the benefits teachers actually receive.* Compared to prior generations, members hired after 2012 pay higher contribution rates than their predecessors did (aka they will earn less in take-home pay), they’ll have to serve longer to qualify for any retirement benefit at all, and they’ll receive lower pension benefits when they retire.

Due to the most recent round of cuts, I found that New York City’s latest benefit tier (Tier 6) would provide adequate retirement benefits only to teachers who serve for at least 23 consecutive years in the city’s public schools. Needless to say, most New York City teachers do not remain that long.

In an op-ed for the New York Daily News, I write:

Continuing to cut benefits for generation after generation of teachers is an unsustainable path. Instead, New York City leaders should look toward alternative models to keep costs in check while ensuring that all teachers are on a path to a secure retirement, no matter how long they serve.

Read the op-ed for the short version of how New York City got to this place, or read the full report for possible solutions.

*Note: While the plans are technically distinct and the funds are kept separate, the benefit rules I’m describing are essentially the same for New York City teachers as they are for teachers across the entire New York state. 

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

Democrats Have an Authenticity Problem

Whether you like Elizabeth Warren’s politics or not, this Will Wilkinson piece for the Niskanen Center is worth your time. The piece is mainly about Senator Warren’s argument that America’s political and economic systems are rigged toward the powerful. I tend to agree with Warren (and Wilkinson’s) core concerns.

But unlike Warren, who has shied away from the politically inconvenient parts of her argument, Wilkinson does not flinch about calling out concentrated power in all its forms:

But focusing too exclusively on the concentrated power of corporations and billionaires isn’t just a strategic error that invites overwhelming resistance from already-dominating political forces that need to be pacified. It also leads to the neglect of other forms of concentrated power that keep our system rigged. This is both an intellectual and strategic mistake. An incomplete and partial diagnosis of the problem narrows the appeal of a structural reform agenda, which makes it harder to recruit the popular political energy it will need to succeed.

For example, public sector unions organize against voters to block reform and starve other programs, and much poorer citizens, of public funds by dominating budget processes. Elected Democrats who like their jobs tend not to complain about teachers unions obstructing badly needed experimentation and reform in our primary education system, just as Republicans tend not to complain about the NRA, but it’s a form of anti-democratic “capture” all the same. And there are many other examples of capture and rule-rigging at work on multiple levels of our political economy. These merit attention, too.

He continues:

Emphasizing that teachers, lawyers, doctors, academics, and other “knowledge work” professionals also insulate themselves from competition and extract resources from less well-positioned citizens is not a standard left message. It is a radical message, but when you whittle away the parts that cut against the interests of the urban liberal professional class, it comes off too much like a strident version of standard-issue Democratic progressivism.

To me, this is where Warren’s argument has run aground. Warren is by no means alone in this, but the easy move among Democrats today is to make an argument about concentrated power and the harm it does to average citizens, but then stop short of applying the same critical lens to traditional Democratic issue areas like education. Democrats have an authenticity problem when they ignore the issue altogether or merely offer more of the same.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman