Elliot Regenstein On NAEP Next Steps

After the long term trend NAEP was released last year a few folks offered their takes here including Sandy Kress, Denise Forte, Morgan Polikoff, and Marguerite Roza. I’m not going to repeat that because I’m not sure how different responses would be after last week’s state NAEP release. I was discussing that release with Elliot Regenstein and at some point said, that would make a good post, write it? And he did. So here’s a guest blog from Elliot:

After last week’s release of new NAEP scores, Andy wrote about NAEP in the Bellwether newsletter titled “Meeting the Moment After NAEP.” He pointed out that one of the overlooked stories of NAEP was the increase in the number of students performing at the “below basic” level.  He describes these children as “the students we’re most concerned with here at Bellwether.” They’re in fact the students many of us are most concerned with – and while the new NAEP scores show incremental expansion of that category, they don’t actually show a fundamental change in the dynamics of the overall education system. 

In my new book, Education Restated, I talk about how the education system has been failing to meet the moment for too many students … for a long, long series of moments. To be clear, the book doesn’t offer any specific insights about the latest NAEP scores, nor are its strategies focused on improving NAEP scores; I don’t want to commit misNAEPery. But moments like these cause a lot of policymakers and pundits to jump up and say, “Let’s respond to this crisis by doing the thing I already proposed doing before the crisis.” Forgive me, please, for being part of that chorus; my book did just come out, and I couldn’t resist.

One thing the NAEP scores have already sparked is a whole set of conversations about what it takes to catch kids up when they’re behind. But for years the blind spot of the accountability movement has actually been the years when we could prevent kids from getting behind in the first place: birth through third grade. Our entire federally-driven school accountability system focuses on what happens after third grade – but as the song says, by the time you hear the siren it’s already too late. 

And here’s the problem. We have a lot of data on what happens after third grade, and what it tells us is that about 15% of school districts are providing kids with 1.1 years of growth per year. If that can be sustained throughout a child’s career, it’s amazing. But that also means that if a cohort of kids is more than a year behind at the end of second grade, even those high-performing districts won’t have that cohort caught up by the end of high school. And as we’ve now learned, the number of kids who are falling behind early in their academic careers is only growing.

So in my book, I propose a few policy strategies aimed at helping the children who need the most help: 

  • Refocusing education accountability to include the years before third grade – not by expanding testing into younger years, but by taking emerging best practices in early childhood accountability and expanding them upward. Specifically, it means not just looking at outcomes but also looking at the quality of teacher-child interaction. Which, as a pleasant side effect, provides much more actionable feedback than standardized test scores.
  • Paying teachers what they’re actually worth. And by that I mean not just paying them more (although that’s part of it); I mean acknowledging that the market for teachers treats as equivalent jobs that really aren’t. Is the candidate pool for a math position at a high school where most children are years behind the same as the candidate pool for a first-grade teacher at a high-performing school?  Of course not. But if those schools are in the same district, then odds are that those jobs would be listed for the same salary.  There’s a reason we’ve had the exact same teacher shortages for decades, and it’s that we’re systematically paying too little for certain teaching roles relative to others.
  • “School choice” debates are often framed as a tug-of-war between traditional public schools and some combination of charters or vouchers. But that frame is far too narrow, and has emerged only because district boundaries – and attendance boundaries within districts – have been far too limiting on family choice. And where inter-district choice programs have emerged they’ve too often been an escape hatch for wealthy families, not a real strategy for helping the students who need it most. Rethinking the meaning of political lines and the incentive structures of choice would give families more options to help their children succeed.

As I said, these proposals aren’t inspired by the NAEP results, nor are they focused on the needs of the cohorts included in the most recent NAEP scores. But to some degree they’re inspired by moments like these, when various factions within the education community push for their preferred solutions. My goal in writing the book was to try to find some areas of potential agreement among politicians and pundits who think they’re on opposing sides of these issues (and many others). Because of those historical divides, political moments like these have a tendency to produce activities that are reflexive and cosmetic, rather than thoughtful and systemic. My hope is that at least some of the energy we’re seeing now will be directed toward longer-term solutions – and that if the issues addressed in my book end up on the table, I hope that its recommendations will prove useful. 

Elliot Regenstein is a partner at Foresight Law + Policy.

Affirmative Action Is Probably Doomed – But It’s Not

Did anyone here go to a state school?

Today at the Supreme Court arguments were heard in two cases involving race-based affirmative action, one from North Carolina and a higher profile case against Harvard. A lot of people are saying it’s the most important case(s) of the court’s current term. I guess I disagree with that in the sense that an important case seems to me like one where the outcome is in question. Given the composition of the court today, and how these cases moved to the high court, this one seems over except for the part where the justices vote. In 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said affirmative action would be gone in 25 years. As in many other ways she was ahead of her time.

The outcome of today’s case will certainly be symbolic. It will fuel arguments about our politics and about the court (though unlike Dobbs this will not be a countermajoritarian decision). I’m not sure, however, how substantively important it will be.

Much of American history is a story of laws being passed on behalf of Black Americans and then those laws being ignored. The importation of slaves was banned in 1808, but it continued right up until the eve of the Civil War.* When Union troops left the South after Reconstruction, in addition to ushering in a new era of racial terror and formal racial caste system, all manner of laws and constitutional protections were ignored and flouted. We’ve made remarkable progress, of course, but these problems are not a relic of the 19th-Century. As anyone who has opened a newspaper in the last decade knows, reckoning with this part of our history – the good and the bad and the present impact – is something we still struggle with.

But, somewhat paradoxically, I’m less concerned about these affirmative action cases than some are because I expect the law to be somewhat ignored here, too. That’s because a few things are true.

First, college admissions are opaque and affirmative action is already somewhat curtailed today. Unless you go to a purely test-based system, which no one does, a lot of factors go into admissions. At public universities factors like where a student is from in a state or if they are out of state, choice of major and school, and diversity all factor into these decisions. Admissions are not a decision of are you in or out overall, so much as how does an applicant stack up in various pools of applicants- for instance against other out-of-state engineering applicants at a public university. It’s even more opaque for private schools – especially elite privates like Harvard. Besides, most colleges in this country take anyone who applies, selective schools are a small fraction of what’s on offer and not the experience for most Americans who attend college. Affirmative action gets a lot of attention in part because it’s about the elite schools we fetishize.

A ruling striking down affirmative action will probably rein in the excesses but not be the death knell for racial and ethnic diversity in higher education that some fear simply because it’s hard to say why a lot of decisions are made. And also, of course, the country is diversifying anyway.

Another reason the impact might be more limited is because, second, Americans don’t like formal race-based affirmative action but value diversity. When affirmative action is put to the test at the ballot box it doesn’t do well – even among non-white Americans. Most recently, the defeat of affirmative action in California in 2020 should have made that abundantly clear. Yet at the same time, in general, Americans do like diversity – of all kinds it should be noted not just race and ethnicity. There are some methodological problems with this poll from earlier this year (party ID and question wording for instance), but it does broadly point in the direction that people value diversity. The poll also underscores how elite advocacy groups need to engage with the broader sentiments in this country – which are again not hostile to diversity but don’t like what seem to be rigid formal systems for achieving it. In their hearts a lot of Americans want diversity, in their heads they are with Hayek and John Roberts and resist what they see as government sanctioned discrimination. Figure out a way to talk about diversity and preferences that works better at a corner bar than a faculty lounge and you will have a forward moving politics a lot of people can get behind.

Progressive affirmative action proponents are in an awkward spot here because they are stuck simultaneously arguing that affirmative action isn’t really much of a plus factor so it’s not a big issue from a constitutional standpoint and that, also, if we get rid of it then the results will be catastrophic. Conservative opponents are stuck wishing away some of the realities of American life today – including legacy admissions and a profoundly unfair K-12 system that assigns the poor to schools by their zip code.

Finally, we know race and class are not the same thing. In plenty of data there is evidence race exerts a special leverage. You see that right here in our K-12 sector. But there is a broad overlap between race and class – and low-income Americans of all races and ethnicities face a lot of structural barriers to opportunity and social mobility. Class-based affirmative action and class-based politics more generally do offer a lot of promise – even if they’re not fashionable in elite spaces. They also bring the promise of more viewpoint diversity. There is some evidence that states that have banned affirmative action have seen declines in underrepresented students, but it’s unclear how much that could be offset by robust class-based measures and other strategies focused on student success. There is plenty of evidence that affirmative action is benefiting economically advantaged students. And obviously we might get serious about improving K-12 schools.

This brings us to Rick Kahlenberg. Rick’s a progressive’s progressive. He and I have disagreed, for instance, on what we should expect from controlled choice plans based on economics relative to charter school plans that increase the supply of public schools. He wrote an admiring biography of influential and iconoclastic teachers’ union leader Albert Shanker that arguably minimized how Shanker’s vision fell short in the meat grinder of union politics. Agree or disagree on issues, Rick’s thoughtful and gets up in the morning trying to figure out how to make America work for more Americans. But as a proponent of economic affirmative action Rick’s on the side of plaintiffs in this case – literally, he was an expert witness as the Harvard case moved through the courts. Whether you agree or disagree with him about that, I’d urge you to read this essay he just wrote in The Atlantic about affirmative action. Among other things, it shows that underneath our partisan and largely tribal debate about affirmative action the current policies aren’t working all that well anyway. Perhaps this decision will usher in new ideas and approaches that move us closer to a more inclusive American across more lines of difference. It does seem like it’s time to try something new.

In any event, Rick’s approach here is a model for principle, for thoughtful disagreement, and also for heterodoxy and how well-intentioned people can look at some questions and come to different conclusions on the best path forward. In general we need more of that if we’re going to get anywhere.

*I think I have recommended it before but just in case, Shemekia Copeland’s “Clotilda’s on Fire” is a callback to the last slave ship known to have arrived on these shores and a highlight of her strong 2020 “Uncivil War” album. One of the enslaved people on that ship became the focal point of a controversial Zora Neale Hurston book.

Let’s Try Plan B. Telling Parents The Truth?

Too many “stakeholders” are treating pandemic education impacts as a public relations crisis rather than an educational disaster.

In The 74 I take a look at the NAEP results. As you may have heard, they’re not good! 

In particular, the rising number of students at the “below basic” level – which even hardened combatants about the NAEP achievement levels acknowledge is an insufficient level of learning to succeed outside of school – is staggering and has long term implications. 

But I try to look at something else, a predicate to addressing all this. Why are we having so much trouble leveling with parents about what’s going on? It’s as though our educational leaders decided to take their cues from Covid-era public health communications. 

This is less Red – Blue than it might seem. The NAEP results don’t lend themselves to easy political narratives, it’s a pretty widespread disaster. So perhaps that’s a chance to reset the conversation? Probably not given the climate. But we have to try. Coming clean with parents is the first step toward a more robust response to ensure we bounce back, ideally stronger. It’s also just the right thing to do. There’s no good argument for the noble lie right now.

From The 74:

The disaster and inequity of pandemic policies is now in clear focus. The state NAEP scores released Monday underscore and quantify just how much of a catastrophe pandemic-era school policy and practice was for students — especially the youngest and those already struggling in school. These data build on and confirm previous evidence we saw through the NAEP as well as results from the ACT and data from vendors such as NWEA and Curriculum Associates. This much converging data is hard to brush away. As the president himself might say, it’s a big ******* deal. 

Schools have obfuscated about what learning loss even means. Insufficient attention to helping teachers communicate effectively with families means parents are left confused about reading and math achievement. Some professional development focuses on helping teachers distract attention from objective measures of reading and numeracy. Leading newspapers have misled readers about whether any of this even matters. States like New York and California have dragged their feet on releasing test score data, while in other places, school officials are minimizing the importance of standardized exams.

The overall fecklessness, irresponsibility and almost total attention to politics and public relations rather than kids surprises even cynical observers of the sector. The noise-to-signal ratio is difficult for families — who have a lot on their plate besides this — to sort out.

Entire column is here at The 74.

Gates Is All About That Base…Ten. Plus The Ongoing Freelance Problem…

Coming Attractions

On Nov. 9, I will be at the American Enterprise Institute with a few other edufolks to analyze the election and its education impacts. This excites and delights a certain kind of edunerd:

Should be a good discussion, some real education implications. With the important caveat that it’s still a few weeks out and there could be surprises the polls are missing — at this point it looks like the fundamentals are still the fundamentals. Gas costs a lot, almost everything costs more, and the President’s approval rating is stuck in the low 40s. The median voter, including the median Democratic voter, seems to care more about these issues than the average MSNBC viewer or Twitter user does. Democrats might catch a break in some Senate races because of the Mad Lib quality of Republican candidate recruitment. Overall, however, it’s a tough year for the incumbent party made tougher by not talking about the economy when the voters really care about, you know, economic conditions (and instead focusing on a bunch of things they really don’t.)

Figures

Sun Tzu reminds us that “water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows” so “the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe for whom he is facing.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation just announced it’s going all in on math.

Privately, a lot of people are grumbling about this for various reasons: ideological fights around math content and pedagogy, philanthropic skepticism, political concern, and questions about this emphasis overall. I don’t know how much of that you’ll hear or the foundation will hear because there is not a lot of return in criticizing one of the largest philanthropic entities in the world, no matter how much everyone says they want honest feedback.

It’s not out of the blue. They’ve been telegraphing this shift- and doing a lot of math work already. And at one level, it’s not surprising that an emphasis on math — and math at scale — would appeal to an executive who thinks in terms of numbers and scale (and that this would then appeal to the team supporting him). In some ways, this brings the foundation’s education giving more in line with a scale approach they take with regard to global public health.

It might do some good. I am increasingly convinced math — and probability and other related themes — is keenly linked to concerns about our civic discourse, mis-and disinformation, and our dysfunctional politics. And, obviously, we have a huge pandemic recovery challenge — that will come into even starker relief next week.

Still, there’s an elephant in the room that’s hard to miss. It seems odd and paradoxical that at a time we’re focused on structural issues in this country in terms of opportunity, equity, and economic mobility, that the most powerful entities shy away from tackling those issues head on and try to find more oblique ways in.

Freelance Work

We’ve talked a few times about how much of the concern about DEI or other culture war issues stem from teachers freelancing with stuff they pulled off the internet. It’s bread and butter for social media,

When I’ve written here that a lot (though not all) of the stuff animating social media around “CRT” or gender or whatever is teachers freelancing, this is in part the kind of thing I’m referring to. That account’s bread and butter was not teachers talking about the formal curriculum and it was not made up. It’s why the way through a lot of this is better curriculum not leaving it to teachers.

So here’s an activity from a suburban D.C.-area high school.

Besides wondering exactly what happens to the kids who identify as being in the ruling class, a couple of things jump out. For starters, it’s good to make people aware of tribal history in Virginia. Virginia had an Indian boarding school, for instance, though those schools are generally taught as a thing that happened out West. But the tribes on this sheet don’t represent tribes that were present in the Chesapeake watershed — where this school is located. You can’t download or cut and paste “cultural competence.” Likewise, Latin@ is not going to be a term many Hispanics identify with if 5% or fewer ID use Latinx. And deciding Hispanic (Latin@) is a race not an ethnicity seems … a little presumptuous for a public school? This is why teachers need quality curriculum (and quality training and PD, natch).

Finally, there’s a basic “Sir, this is a Wendy’s” problem. This whole exercise was a project in a high school Spanish class.

In her newsletter this morning Nellie Bowles noted how the rush to new sex ed curriculums fueled by the insatiable desire to show the world allyship is creating a backlash that’s bad news for gay kids. (We talked about this backlash last week in the context of the rush to have schools get in front of families on LGBT questions.) This sort of thing, too, may originate with good intentions but nonetheless alienates people from their public schools. There’s plenty of real estate between making sure all identities are respected and included in the life of a public school and a politically all-thumbs approach like this. Public school advocates had better find their voice to make that clear or the drain of students and political backlash will continue. There, too, maybe don’t take your cues from MSNBC and Twitter.

Tensions – We Got ‘Em! (We Just Don’t Talk About It)

Years ago Rick Hess and I wrote an article for PDK about the inherent tension in where to focus school improvement efforts. Rick takes a utilitarian position that focusing on high achievers is key to American competitiveness. I think from a societal standpoint and competitiveness gaps and inequity are where to focus. Thing is, Rick is not indifferent to gaps and I care about high achieving students and supporting their learning – and have no problem with elements in accountability systems to incentivize that. (The US News High School Rankings address both gaps and advanced course taking).

The point of the article was that there are tensions there we have to discuss and think about. We wrote it together precisely because we didn’t agree but wanted to see the issues discussed because that leads to progress and new ideas. Policy can’t be “and a pony” on everything no matter how much advocates may claim or wish it so. There are tensions and tradeoffs, always. That nuance gets lost, of course, in the bullshit that passes for debate and advocacy in our sector. We have to be able to talk about textured things without them becoming weaponized.

That’s all by way of saying this Jessica Levin essay is worth your time. Jessica is a long time and sharp observer of and player in the sector. In this new essay in Ed Post she asks several important questions about unintended consequences of the gap closing effort. That’s something we should talk about more and where reasonable people can disagree on policy in good faith. Jessica writes,

It is understandable that raising concerns about how our schools currently are balancing equity and excellence would provoke strong responses among those for whom closing achievement gaps to advance equity is the paramount goal. No doubt, their case is bolstered by our country’s egregious history and current reality: racism and segregation, gaping educational resource inequalities, and widening economic inequalities.

But it’s hard to believe that in the long term, silence on this issue is the path to building a healthy, well-functioning public education system that advances opportunity for all. 

It’s the kind of essay that deserves reading and discussion.

Finally, on this issue of tensions. Last week I had the privilege of spending 30 minutes discussing the equity and innovation tension with Chris Rush and Denise Forte as part of an event New Classrooms (BW client) put together. There are tradeoffs around unleashing innovation and kids falling to the cracks, we discuss how to think about them.

You know what’s not tense? Bob Weir and the National Symphony. Treat your ears:

Friday Fish Pics – Jonathan Harber & Sons

It’s been a heavy week of content, shortchanging kids on learning, balancing rights and inclusion. And it’s been a bit since we had fish pics this year. So let’s end on a light note: Here’s Jonathan Harber and family with some fish.

Harber does, and has done, a lot in this sector. And I’ve featured him and his family of fish slayers here before.

Friday fish what? Irregularly on Fridays we post pictures of education people with fish. Here are hundreds of pictures of education types and fish from over the years. A gentle reminder there is more to life than politics or online life. Get outside – research shows it’s good for you. Even better, take a kid fishing.

The Real Flashpoint In Virginia’s New Transgender Guidelines For Schools? Teacher Rights. Part 2 of 2. 

In Part 1 we talked about the crux issue in the new Virginia transgender guidelines for schools (that a lot of people are dancing around). Is it OK for schools to conceal gender transitions from parents or is that the only way to be affirming for LGBT kids? Outside of exceptional circumstances concealing things from parents and guardians seems untenable and problematic. Some disagree.

That fight is obscuring a more consequential and unsettled question the guidelines point up: What free speech rights do teachers enjoy when it comes to names and pronouns?

The Guidelines Create Two Rights and Point Up an Unsettled One

The model guidelines establish two parallel rights. This is all outlined under Section D, below. If you want your child to be called by a name or pronoun that doesn’t correspond with their student record and biologic sex, you have to notify the school in writing. On the other hand, if you don’t want your child called by a name or pronoun that does not correspond with their student record and biologic sex then that parental right is respected, too. It seems untenable to have one of these rights without the other, the guidance includes both.

This is what is being called outing, but in practice it means if a student wants their public school to do something contrary to their parent’s wishes then unless they are 18 or emancipated the parents have to be involved. There is no affirmative duty to report, but schools can’t conceal what they are doing. Legally, whether you like it or not, we are talking about minors here, who don’t enjoy the rights you may think they do, even as adolescents. There is a note about that in the first post. (You can also get your student’s official records changed, that’s also covered by Grimm, but because these are legal records it requires more documentation than just a note to school).

The relevant section of the proposed model policies

I should note that the polling on parent views here might not be what you think (or what I figured before this question was polled more). Fewer than four in ten parents think teachers should be required to use preferred pronouns. That makes my own view on this, just call people what they want to be called, a minority opinion. This is an example of the work advocates have to do if freedom is going to mean something. The focus on keeping things from parents is not making that work any easier.

As you can see, the guidance also contains an exception (Part 6) stating that teachers and students can’t be required to use pronouns or names that violate their constitutional rights. It doesn’t lay out those rights because it remains uncertain what those rights are in public K-12 settings. The Washington Post editorial board’s hypothetical about teachers belittling students wouldn’t fly under this policy regardless of what a court says on the First Amendment question. In more than a few parts of the proposed guidance anti-harassment and bullying language is laid out. That’s not protected speech in schools. The Post’s example illustrates how the real issues are being buried under an avalanche of hyperbole.

Continue reading “The Real Flashpoint In Virginia’s New Transgender Guidelines For Schools? Teacher Rights. Part 2 of 2. “

The Real Flashpoint In Virginia’s New Transgender Guidelines For Schools? Teacher Rights. Part 1 of 2

At last, we’ve found a teacher right progressives hate, and a parent right many conservatives don’t like either.

There is a lot of attention, and a lot of inaccurate attention, on Virginia’s new model guidelines for schools and transgender students. Some articles can’t get through the lede without a mischaracterization. That’s politics today.

It’s a pretty safe bet most people talking about the proposed guidelines haven’t read them. As of today there are about 59,000 public comments (many of those from bots) but the Department of Education page that has the actual proposed guidelines has been visited about 7,000 times since they were released. I’ve interacted with plenty of people, including professional media, who have strong views but haven’t read them. That, too, is politics today.

The guidelines are brief, so read them yourself rather than secondary sources or what you heard on social media. (Here is the previous Northam version being replaced.) Only 13 of 133 school divisions were following the Northam plan because many people, including many committed to inclusion for LGBT kids, believe aspects of that policy are unworkable. Some school divisions are instead using guidance from the state’s school board association to balance the various issues here. Because of the way governance works in Virginia the state board, that I serve on, is not involved in these particular regulations. They are legislatively directed to the SEA. So this post isn’t arguing after the whistle about a policy decision I was involved in (though I will offer input as appropriate).

Across this post and the next one I want to look at the crux issue here and an overlooked one. In particular, I want to point up a consequential open question the proposed guidance raises. What rights do teachers have when it comes to calling kids what their parents want them to be called? But first, the core issue.

Concealing Transitions From Parents

My basic view? Transgender, and all LGBT kids, deserve respect, dignity, safety, and love. If you disagree, go talk to some kids. The first three of those are policy issues. The debate about the proposed guidance is turning on the fourth issue – people wanting to show these kids they love them. That’s understandable given headwinds some transgender and gay students face. But this is fundamentally a question of policy. And the crux issue in the guidance is whether schools can socially transition students identifying as transgender while concealing it, or related counseling, from parents.

Continue reading “The Real Flashpoint In Virginia’s New Transgender Guidelines For Schools? Teacher Rights. Part 1 of 2”

The Quiet Quitting Of School Schedules

Light posting, I’ve been swamped with work and a few other things. Some posts coming, including the fish pictures I’ve been promising plus some new ones, why high school cafeterias explain life in the elite parts of the education sector, and a look at the controversy about the proposed model guidelines for transgender students in Virginia.

At Bellwether we updated the Parent Perception Barometer. And here’s BW’s Michelle Croft, Alex Spurrier, and Julie Squire on parents and supplemental learning opportunities.

Later this week I’m doing a discussion about equity and innovation with Denise Forte and Chris Rush as part of this event.

Tim DeRoche, who is leading some important work on school boundaries and opportunity, has a children’s book coming in January.

But today I want to write a little about pluralism, inclusion, and school schedules.

About 15 years ago I went to the Christmas concert at a public school. ‘You mean a holiday pageant’ you might be thinking, or less charitably, ‘stop “centering” Christianity dude!’ But this was a Christmas concert, even though there were certainly students in the school who did not celebrate Christmas or perhaps any faith tradition at all. And again, it was a public school.

That stuff still happens, though you see a lot less of it. It’s largely regional. (Though we do seem to be in a period of redefining religion and public schools some – this year’s SCOTUS rulings in Kennedy and Makin for instance).

This month, a lot of schools gave flexible time for Rosh Hashanah or straight-up time off. That’s good. Although our calendar anchors off some Christian holidays there is no reason not to accommodate the range of faith traditions in public schools in various parts of the country. You’re starting to see Diwali, for example, on more school calendars, too, as a day off later this month. Or seeing the Eid holidays recognized in places with large Muslim populations. It’s a welcome trend, if you’re of the mind that schools should be as inclusive as possible.

But like some other issues of inclusion, it also requires some intentionality. In this case, more holidays = less school.

Instead of being intentional about that, what some schools are doing is not figuring out how to make up time given for religious observances. They’re not closing and making the time up another day. They are simply giving students flexibility, not doing instruction, but still having school. There are examples of teachers just being told not to deliver new instruction on those days, use it as review time instead. But those are still counted as instructional days for the school year. Looked at one way, that could even be considered an equity issue.

And this is also not ideal for teachers – who themselves may want a day(s) off for observance. Teachers also need instructional time to, you know, teach.

So if you are concerned about the amount of instructional time overall. If you are especially worried about Covid recovery right now given the stark data we’re seeing. Or you just think it’s good for students to be getting more instruction in school, this is something to pay attention to. It’s the quiet quitting of school calendars.

We shouldn’t pit instructional time against religious observance and inclusion. Rather, we should ask why in a calendar with about 260 workdays each year are we even having this conversation? It’s part and parcel of a pretty reductionist and stale approach to school scheduling. Teachers deserve more flexible schedules and that’s a recruitment and retention strategy, too. More imaginative scheduling would be good for students, too. We can use time more creatively.

About 15 years ago Elena Silva wrote a great paper looking at time in schools – still worth reading today.

For now, if you’re a parent, you might want to ask how instructional time is being made up on days school is in session but teachers are explicitly not supposed to teach new content. How many such days are there?* How much instruction is there relative to all the days your child heads off to school? If you are a teacher, no one is doing you any favors here. You just have less time to accomplish the same (or more) things. If you are a school leader this seems like a great opportunity for some leadership and model practices. If you’re a reporter, ask some questions.

*Two things to bear in mind, review days are important. But those, at a teachers’ discretion, are a different thing. And some de facto no teaching days exist out of the religious realm of course. The first day of hunting season is often a nominal day off in some parts of the country for example. Or a big powder dump in mountain country.

Schrödinger’s Schools? Are Virginia’s Schools Good Or Not? Yes.

In the tiresome debate about our schools, here in Virginia and nationally, questions like “Are schools as good/bad as people say?” dominate.

These are the wrong kind of questions.

The big story of American education is variance – in everything from funding to outcomes. School performance is mixed overall and here in Virginia. That’s why Virginia at once has schools that are the envy of the world, and also fewer than one in five Virginia low-income and/or Black 8th-graders are proficient on the highly-regarded NAEP assessment and there are big gaps on our state assessments and a lot of underperformance. Often the schools producing those disparate outcomes are in close quarters to one another.

Yesterday, Virginia released school accreditation ratings based on the most recent student achievement data. Because Virginia doesn’t have any sort of accountability system or much in the way of school choice, these ratings take on a lot of substantive and political weight. They also pretty consistently lead to a lot of confusion. This year is no exception. The new rankings show that almost all Virginia schools are accredited and doing OK, even though we know there were problems before the pandemic – and that the pandemic was a disaster for a lot of kids.

So a lot of folks are chirping that this must be because things are OK even though the governor somehow doesn’t want them to be and is cooking up a crisis. That’s a now long running debate. On a few levels this makes no sense, including the most obvious one: We’ve seen the most recent results on Virginia’s own assessments: 2021-2022 SOL results were released last month. And other data confirms the problems. You have a three-fold increase in students showing growth instead of proficiency and 4x in math.

Look, an accreditation system that produces just a three-point decline in the number of schools accredited when the bottom has basically fallen out on student achievement in many places is a system without face validity. Virginians deserve better. The goal is obviously not to manufacture a certain number of schools doing well or not doing well. It’s just that we* should have a system that better reflects reality and that is more transparent for parents.

If you think this is just a Youngkin thing, here’s The Washington Post editorial board in 2022 and in 2017. Here’s the invaluable Matt Hurt with more.

The issue here is not re-litigating pandemic choices. This was a pre-pandemic issue, too. Rather, it’s problems with features of the how the accreditation system works. For instance, growth is counted as proficiency, which disadvantages kids; the system that is intended to be earned autonomy for high-performing schools (a good thing) ends up creating loopholes; and it’s confusing as hell for parents and educators. It doesn’t really include school divisions who actually oversee and are responsible for the schools. There is more. We also have a problem with what a passing student test even means – we need more transparency about cut scores on various tests so parents can appreciate what passing means in terms of what children know and do.

For instance, I don’t think most parents appreciate this reality in all the happy talk:

Via Virginia Department of Education

Here’s a good analysis of how accreditation works prepared by the team at the Virginia Department of Education.

The Governor asked the State Board of Education to revise the accreditation system and he’s right to do so and we should. It’s too complicated for parents to understand and it’s not producing results that square with reality. I know there are strong feelings about the governor, but reasonable people should not find a lot to argue with here, we can do better. Governor Youngkin yesterday:

Yes.

*Update! I should note, I guess, that I’m on the Virginia Board of Education! Be the change you want to see and all that. Thought that would also be obvious. Sorry.