December 2, 2020

Deep into the new school year, we’re still missing a lot of students

An empty elementary school classroom

Source: Wikimedia

Educators, parents, and policymakers have been concerned about the effects of the pandemic on student learning ever since it forced the abrupt end of in-person instruction in March. In October, my colleagues and I estimated that 3 million students were at high risk of having had little to no education since then. NWEA, the organization that runs the popular MAP Growth exam, estimated in April 2020 that learning loss due to spring school closures and the “summer slide” would set students back, on average, by 30% of a year in reading and more than half a year in math.

The new school year has brought about new data on student performance, and the early returns seem less dire than those original projections — with a major caveat. In a new brief with fall data, NWEA found that students in their test sample started the 2020-21 school year in roughly the same place in reading compared with similar students at the start of 2019-20, and about 5-10 percentile points lower in math. This was a huge sample of 4.4 million students spanning grades 3 through 8, so relatively minor slowdowns in math progress seems worth celebrating.

But these findings are not all good news. The authors note that many of the observable declines were concentrated disproportionately among Black and Hispanic student populations. Biggest of all, fully 25% of students who took the MAP last year didn’t take it this year. In a “normal” year, that rate of dropoff is more like 15%, which suggests that there are many students missing from this year’s data. These could be new homeschoolers or private school enrollees, or they could be disconnected from the school system altogether.

This aligns with other early state-level estimates of enrollment declines. Connecticut’s fall 2020 enrollment is down roughly 3%; so is that of Washington and Missouri. Georgia’s state enrollment numbers are down 2.2%. Most of those declines are concentrated in kindergarten and pre-K, often in double digits. Each of these newly available data points seem to provide evidence of a big picture that is potentially devastating: as many as three million students missing from school.

It’s important to consider here that these missing students — missing from school, and missing from the NWEA MAP data — include those most likely to be deeply affected by the pandemic. In an addendum to the NWEA brief, authors Angela Johnson and Megan Kuhfeld warn that these new learning loss estimates must be considered with this in mind: that the students being tested now are on average less racially diverse (and whiter) and attending socioeconomically more advantaged schools. This is emblematic of what we have seen playing out across the country all year. Generally speaking, more well-off students and their families have the resources to withstand the pressure of the pandemic to an extent that their lower-income peers do not, resulting in two increasingly divergent education systems: one where frequent testing, hybrid learning, and private tutoring are available — and one where they are not.

While this challenge is immense and likely to be with us for some time to come, there are action steps policymakers can take immediately that will better position states and districts for the long haul. The new enrollment figures underscore an urgent need for improved attendance and enrollment data and faster reporting that will enable schools to be responsive and flexible in tracking down “missing” students. There is also a need for attendance intervention strategies that start with an informed understanding of students’ unmet needs, and for collaboration with social service organizations and other community-based organizations that can work to meet those needs. And states can start by providing the funding that can make these interventions possible.

For more on the 3 million students missing in the margins, you can read Bellwether’s report here.


November 10, 2020

Three Reasons to Move School Board Elections to November

Last week’s election was a referendum on the Trump Administration, but it wasn’t a referendum on how well schools have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s because three out of every four states hold school board elections “off-cycle,” meaning they do not take place at the same time as other state and federal elections. 

The effect is dismal voter turnout. Recent estimates from the National School Boards Association place voter turnout in school board elections between 5 and 10 percent (compared to around 60 percent for presidential elections). Now, while families are acutely aware of how district governance affects their schools and their children, it’s time to move school board elections to the first Tuesday in November. 

First, moving school board elections to be held alongside other major elections could dramatically increase voter turnout. It’s commonly known that voter turnout for midterm elections is far lower than it is during presidential election years. Turnout for off-cycle elections is even lower. This year’s election provided a natural experiment in Dallas, where school board elections are typically held in the spring but were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were instead held on Election Day last week. In May 2019, the off-cycle election for three seats on the Dallas school board garnered just 14,000 votes; last week, the election for two seats on the board garnered 86,000 votes, an increase of over 500 percent. 

Second, moving school board elections on cycle would balance out the interest groups most likely to organize and participate when an election is held off-cycle. Sarah Anzia’s research on election timing and turnout substantiates the idea that off-cycle elections are dominated by “politically motivated minorities” such as teachers unions. Consider the case of Los Angeles Unified School District. The district held its first on-cycle elections for two school board seats last week, in which charter school proponents challenged candidates supported by the teachers unions. Regardless of how one feels about charter schools or teachers unions, there’s no doubt the election generated significant attention and debate on an important question. Enormous energy — and money — went into an election with historic turnout. According to the LAist, the 243,000 ballots cast in the race for the District 3 school board seat are almost as many as all of the ballots cast for the same seat between 2003 and 2015. 

Finally, increasing voter turnout can increase the alignment between voter demographics and the demographics of students being served. Research from The Annenberg Institute at Brown University confirms that the demographics of voters are often very different from the demographics of the district’s students. On-cycle elections could help mitigate this phenomenon. Consider Gwinnett County where voters last week elected two African American women and displaced two white women, in an increasingly racially diverse district of suburban Atlanta. Would this have happened if elections were off-cycle and candidates could not ride the wave of increased voter participation in the African American community? On-cycle elections can help ensure that as a community changes, their school board changes with it. 

The argument for off-cycle elections has been that they insulate school board elections from the partisan politics that define elections for state and federal offices. But politics is inevitable in any democratic process, and the timing of elections is a political decision in itself. As the country struggles to get students back into school, and back to learning, surely school boards would benefit from more debate and scrutiny — not less.


November 6, 2020

State Governments Will Be Even More Partisan Post 2020. What Does That Mean for Education?

In our federated system of K-12 education governance, state legislatures and governors play a huge role in shaping the educational experience of our nation’s children. Heading into the 2020 election cycle, only one state’s legislature was under split partisan control (Minnesota’s House of Representatives was controlled by Democrats, their Senate by Republicans). In every other state, one party had complete control of the legislature. In 36 states, one party held a trifecta of government control: both legislative chambers plus the governorship. 

The 2020 elections looked like an opportunity to disrupt that dynamic. Several legislative chambers looked like they might flip, including both chambers in Arizona and Alaska, Iowa’s House, Michigan’s House, Minnesota’s Senate, North Carolina’s Senate, and the Pennsylvania House. In an environment that appeared to favor Democrats across the country, it was a chance to break the stranglehold of single-party control in at least a few states.

But in the wake of the 2020 elections, it looks like we’ll have more of the same. So far, the only legislative chamber that flipped control is in New Hampshire, giving the Republicans a new trifecta under Gov. Chris Sununu. The GOP gained another trifecta in Montana following the election of Greg Gianforte as Governor. While there is still a chance that one or both chambers may flip in Arizona or Alaska, we certainly did not see Democrats making significant inroads in state-level races around the country. 

The next few years are sure to be critical for K-12 education policy. Schools, educators, and families are still struggling with educating kids in the midst of a global pandemic. State-level policymakers will not only have to support efforts to safely reopen schools for in-person instruction and face potential budgetary challenges, they will also need to address massive learning losses from months of disrupted learning — and in the case of some students, no learning at all

In 38 states, most of the policies to address those challenges will be formed and enacted by a single political party. In states controlled by Democrats, they’ll probably defer too much to teachers unions as they fight to keep schools closed. On the other side of things, Republican-led states may be hesitant to spend on measures to help schools reopen safely, like HVAC system upgrades

After all the ballots are counted, our nation will remain deeply divided on many fronts, but the challenges facing students, families, and educators transcend partisan affiliations. Let’s hope that state policymakers from both parties can rise to the moment.

Stay tuned for more Election 2020 coverage here.


Ballot Initiative Results in CA, WA, and Other States — and Implications for Education

On Election Day, Bellwether shared a roundup of key races and issues we are closely watching due their potential impact on education,. While the nation nervously waits for clarity in the Presidential race, the results from several important and expensive ballot initiatives have rolled in. Here are four that I’m paying attention to:

California’s Proposition 16

This ballot measure, which would have reversed the state’s longstanding ban on affirmative action in government hiring and in public university admissions, failed. After a summer marked by activism and calls for racial justice, 56% of voters in arguably the most progressive state rejected the measure. As a result of the state’s 1997 ban on affirmative action, the percent of Black students in the state’s university system has dropped in half, even as the state has produced more Black high school graduates. The ban also negatively affected the enrollment of Latino and Native American students in California’s public universities. In all, eight states have affirmative action bans similar to California’s and this loss is likely to have a chilling effect on activists looking to overturn bans in their states. 

California’s Proposition 15

The union-backed initiative that would result in higher property taxes for commercial and industry property to provide additional funding for local governments, schools, and community colleges is trailing as of this writing. Were it to pass, Proposition 15 would be the largest tax increase in California history, resulting in a net increase in tax revenues of up to $12 billion, 40% of which would go to K-12 schools and community colleges. At the time of writing, it appears that the majority of California voters will reject this tax hike and, along with it, potentially billions of additional revenue for schools.

Washington State’s Referendum 90

Washington became the first state this week to pass a comprehensive sex education mandate with nearly 60% support. The mandate requires public schools to offer families the option of age-appropriate curriculum focused on issues including human development and consent. Opponents of the measure argued inaccurately that the legislation would impede on local administrators’ ability to control the curriculum, but it appears voters were not swayed by these arguments. Washington now joins 24 other states and D.C. that require sex education. 

Multi-state Drug Reform

On Tuesday, voters across the nation sent a clear message and voted for drug policy reform. Voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. In Mississippi and South Dakota, voters legalized medical marijuana. In Oregon voters decriminalized all drugs, including cocaine and heroin, and in Washington, D.C., voters decriminalized psychedelic plants (like mushrooms). With these new policies to decriminalize and legalize certain drugs will come new questions for parents and educational officials. How should officials address issues of student drug possession? What will the impact of legalization be on K-12 achievement? What rights do employees have who use recreationally? Leaders can look for some answers in Colorado, which legalized marijuana in 2012, saw the rate of teen drug use fall to its lowest level in a decade. 

Stay tuned for more Election 2020 coverage here.


November 5, 2020

What Did Joe Biden’s Coalition Look Like? What Does it Mean for Education?

As I write this, we’re not done counting votes in several key states, including Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. But if current trends hold, Joe Biden appears likely to become our 46th President.

What’s astounding is his coalition of voters. According to a review of exit polls, Biden performed better than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 among white men, but performed worse among white women, Black women, Black men, Latina women, and Latino men. See the graphic below via CNN:

Back in August, Alex Spurrier and I warned that Joe Biden’s campaign platform overlooked effective education policies that Black and Hispanic voters tended to support. While the two things may or may not be related, it’s striking that Biden did worse among non-white voters, collectively, than any Democrat since JFK in 1960.

As someone who worked in the Obama Administration, it’s hard for me to look at President Trump’s record and understand how he could increase his support among Black and Hispanic voters. But somehow he did.

Readers of this blog will also have to grapple with the fact that education itself has been politicized over the last four years. In 2016, Trump won among voters without a college degree. In response, pollsters changed their methodologies to account for educational attainment. But polls this time seem to be off again, and Biden, like Clinton, maintained a stark advantage among voters with at least a bachelor’s degree, while Trump continued to win among voters with an associate’s degree or less. See the graphic below via Patrick Ruffini’s analysis of AP VoteCast data:

In other words, the Biden coalition looks quite a bit different than the ones assembled by recent Democrats. Per Andy Rotherham’s suggestion on Tuesday, who wins the election matters the most, but how they win is also important for understanding how they might govern after all the votes are counted.