Category Archives: COVID-19

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.

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.

ICYMI: Is There or Isn’t There a Looming Fiscal Cliff for Education?

Throughout the past month, Bellwether has weighed in on the financial health of schools in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, with different reactions, resources, and recommendations from across our team. In case you missed it, here’s a quick recap: 

You can read all the posts in the series here, and we welcome your reactions! Thanks for following along.

An Underused Path for Rescuing Early Care Providers

This is our latest post in “The Looming Financial Crisis?” series. Read the rest here.

Even in the best of times, the community-based organizations, nonprofits, and schools that run early childhood programs in this country operate on extremely thin margins.

Because of COVID-19, they’re in crisis. Many are waiting desperately for families willing to sign up for in-person care or for the federal government to pass another stimulus bill. In a July survey, 40 percent of current early childhood providers said that without additional public assistance, they would close permanently. In that scenario, thousands of early educators would lose their primary source of income. The resulting loss would also have dire implications for parents and caregivers trying to go back to work — and for the economy. 

Outside of direct financial assistance, there’s another — and largely unexplored — route to help shore up the finances of existing early childhood providers and support the creation of new providers: state legislators should create flexibility from regulations that govern the facilities where early childhood operators can work.

Right now, for example, early childhood providers spend valuable money and limited staff time thinking about things like building individual “cubbies” within classrooms with individual hooks and ensuring an “adequate supply of blocks in varied sizes” that is “organized and labeled.” Facilities regulations can also prevent potential providers from ever opening. For example, in order to serve preschoolers, charter schools often must retrofit their existing classrooms to meet early childhood regulations, which can be a prohibitively expensive endeavor. 

There is no argument that children need safety, and that operators need to be compelled — through a combination of oversight, law, and agency guidance — to make the safest spaces for kids to play and learn. But states across the country have taken things a step too far, adding burdensome hoops that don’t actually do anything to ensure quality, safety, or rigor.

Loosening these regulations would ease the financial pressure on existing providers, allowing them to spend funds elsewhere, like on public health measures, staff salaries, or rent. Depending on the regulation, providers may even be able to reconfigure their existing space to enroll more students while still meeting COVID health and safety standards. And in the best case scenario, providers that have not previously offered child care due to facilities restrictions could begin to do so. 

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Which Outcomes Should Minnesota Hold Its High Schools Responsible For?

Long before the pandemic, schools and communities recognized that a high school diploma is no longer enough. Today, eight in 10 Minnesota students graduate high school, but as more graduates look to a future amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they may question whether their high school has adequately prepared them to succeed in college or career.

Minnesota has taken steps to create programs to prepare students for life beyond high school, as well as collect critical information and data about those efforts. Yet the state has failed to incorporate postsecondary outcomes into the way it evaluates high school performance. It’s time to fix this mismatch.

Minnesota’s Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program, which dates back to 1985, was the first-of-its-kind to help students complete high school and college coursework at the same time. Nearly 250,000 Minnesota students have benefited from this program since its inception, and that number doubles once you include Minnesota’s other dual enrollment programming.

In addition to information on the PSEO program, the state tracks student performance in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, as well as SAT and ACT results. Minnesota also tracks a variety of additional measures on high school graduates, such as postsecondary enrollment and employment outcomes like the number of hours worked, in what industry, and the hourly wages earned. 

Unfortunately, Minnesota’s efforts at data collection result in nice graphs on a website with little effect on student success. What is the point of data collection unless it informs programming, benefits students, and helps ensure all students are given equal opportunities?

High school leaders may think it’s unfair to hold them accountable for what happens outside their walls. But students need to be prepared for the world that awaits them, whether that is a pandemic-ravaged economy or remote college learning, and schools bear significant responsibility to provide that preparation. Continue reading