October 22, 2020

The 3 Million Who Never Showed Up for Virtual Schooling

For some students, the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic on education goes far beyond coping with the difficulties of distance learning. For these students, a day in March or April marks the last day of their formal education altogether. Out of the approximately 53 million K-12 students in the United States who stopped attending in-person school in the spring, an estimated three million may have never showed up online at all.

That figure comes from a new Bellwether analysis that estimates the number of students who, due to various barriers, did not make the transition, remaining disconnected even as schooling continued online. Just as the pandemic has disproportionately affected our most vulnerable and marginalized communities, this “disconnected” population is more likely to be composed of English learners, students in foster care, migrant students, students experiencing homelessness, and students with disabilities. Three million students is approximately 1 out of every 4 of these student populations combined — and also roughly equivalent to the entire school-age population of Florida.

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, wildfires, hurricanes, social unrest, and a general election, it’s easy to miss what’s happening here. But just like the pandemic itself, the defining feature of this crisis is the scale — this is something that every district, in every state, is struggling to address. Once a young person leaves school, it can be very difficult to re-engage them. The long-term implications of even a short period of learning loss are serious, and the outcomes associated with dropping out of high school are even more dire.

We could be witnessing the beginning of an event that has lifelong implications for this generation of students, in much the same way that the Great Recession has hamstrung millennials’ accumulation of wealth relative to previous generations. And among the young people of this new generation, the harshest impacts fall, time after time, on communities of color, students with disabilities, and those living in poverty. 

That’s a gloomy picture to paint, and it’s easy to feel as though we can’t grapple with this problem the way we would want to, given the enormity of everything else happening in the world. But there are concrete steps we can take right now to mitigate the damage being done, from improving attendance data collection — and data sharing — across public agencies to implementing interventions that meet the most vulnerable students where they are. Many teachers and leaders have identified a need for collaboration with social service providers and telecommunications firms to provide Internet connectivity to those in dire need. And states must provide stronger guidance, funding, and resources for schools and social services that can be spent flexibly, effectively, and in a timely manner.

Above all, the number one thing public officials can do to start to repair the damage done — and to prevent the unimaginable harm of a “lost generation” — is to develop and effectively implement the public policies needed to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic by reducing community transmission to levels negligible enough to permit a return to the normal school environment. There is no sustainable education policy workaround that can surmount a public health crisis of this magnitude. Back on March 13, seven months ago, it was difficult to imagine we would find ourselves in this position; our best course of action now is to take aggressive action on behalf of the roughly three million students whose educational futures are in the balance.


October 15, 2020

Four Latina Education Leaders on Better Serving Dual Language Learners and Families

leana Ortiz, a New Orleans parent advocate with EdNavigator, talks about ensuring that dual language families are recognized and included: When I think about the families I serve in my community, these families have risked everything. They’ve crossed oceans, they’ve been detained, they’ve experienced things that are really tragic and traumatic, and a big reason why is to try and give their families and their kids a shot at a better life. And they believe that comes with education. I get pretty fiery when I feel like I’m not seeing that honored by teachers or by schools. Sometimes when I’m talking to teachers and schools about offering translated materials, it sounds like I’m asking for something extra. But it’s not something extra.

There are almost 60 million Latinos in the U.S., and Latino children make up almost a quarter of the children in our country — and our schools. Still, “media coverage of Hispanics tends to focus on immigration and crime, instead of how Latino families live, work and learn in their hometowns.”

Hispanic Heritage Month, ending today, is an opportunity to elevate stories of resilience and identify opportunities to positively engage Latino communities. Bellwether is taking a look at language access and the ways our schools either engage or fail to engage bilingual families. Dual language learners (DLLs), children under the age of 8 who have at least one parent who speaks a language other than English, represent a fast-growing group of students in the United States, and the most prevalent language spoken by this group is Spanish. 

But our education system is failing these children in both our approach and attitude. Many of our education policies are oriented toward remedying “deficits” in English, instead of embracing  bilingualism as an asset that leads towards multicultural perspectives, advanced learning, and national enrichment. This deficit-based approach contributes to academic disparities between DLLs and monolingual students that are evident as early as kindergarten. When educational settings devalue DLLs’ strengths, families of dual language learners can feel unwelcome.   

In the course of researching our new report, Language Counts: Supporting Early Math Development for Dual Language Learners, we spoke to parents and advocates to understand why it’s important to shift from a deficit- to an asset-based model of engagement with dual language learners. 

These conversations elevate the voices of those who are too often an afterthought when creating education policy and serve as a reminder that every child and every parent, regardless of their English proficiency, deserves equal access to the support they need to succeed.  Continue reading


Preventing a “Lost Generation” of Community College Learners

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

Monroe Community College Cafeteria, all seats at round tables empty, yellow overhead lighting

Photo by David Maiolo via Wikimedia

Community colleges have long served as an accessible and affordable post-secondary pathway to better jobs for high school graduates and adults looking to upskill. For example, the median weekly earnings for someone with an associate’s degree are 17% higher than for those with only a high school diploma or a GED. Community colleges are particularly important for traditionally underserved students: compared to students at four-year colleges, community college students are more likely to be the first in their families to attend college, to be from a low-income family, and to be members of racial or ethnic minority groups. 

This is one reason why the steep declines in community college enrollment this fall are especially troubling. According to newly released data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), undergraduate enrollments across the country are down 4.0 percent compared to the same time last year, with the biggest losses being at community colleges, where enrollments declined by 9.4 percent, on fall enrollments. 

Before the pandemic, there were approximately 5.5 million students enrolled in community college nationally. A 9.4 percent enrollment decrease equals about 520,000 students that have “stopped out” of community college, at least temporarily. This group of students is at risk of being a “lost generation” of learners. Dr. Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping community colleges become leaders in their communities, told The Well News: “The pandemic, if we are unable to find students we lost and keep students we serve, and open up new access points for new students, will result in a lost generation of learners that will hurt the economic and civic fabrics of the communities our colleges serve.” 

Why are more community college students “stopping out” of college relative to four-year students? We know from our work that, in aggregate, community college students often face more barriers on their road to completion. This excerpt from an April NEA Today article sheds some light:

Students who are first-generation, who are on financial aid, who face challenges around hunger, housing, transportation, and who are balancing work, childcare, and more, “they are all being adversely affected in ways that make those inequities more stark and more exacerbated,” says [Kurt Meyer, an English professor at Irvine Valley College in California and president of the South Orange County Community College District Faculty Association], who notes a five-fold increase in South Orange County college students recently applying for emergency funds to pay rent, fix cars, and more.

One major challenge is that many community colleges were struggling financially even before the pandemic and are likely to see further financial challenges as a result of the pandemic. Not only are many schools facing losses of income from reduced enrollment and unexpected refunds, but many are facing additional financial challenges caused by cuts in state funding. Lakeland Community College in Ohio, for example, will lose over $780,000 in state funding by the end of June 2020 and expects to lose over $4 million for the fiscal year ending in 2021. Similar cases can be found around the country, and many community colleges have been forced to furlough and lay off faculty and staff.

So, what can leaders do to ensure that we don’t lose a generation of students to COVID disruptions and increasingly tight financial constraints?  Continue reading


October 13, 2020

9 Considerations for Charter School Mergers in an Era of Limited Budgets

Since March, school funding experts have sought to understand how the economic turmoil coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic would affect school revenue. Most analysts agree that the impact will be significant and will be felt most by those who are the furthest from opportunity. Unfortunately, charter schools — which nationally enroll a student population that is 52 percent low-income, 25 percent Black, and 34 percent Hispanic — are particularly vulnerable to variations in state funding. 

Charter schools struggling with financial sustainability may consider whether the school’s mission might be better served by merging with another charter school. However, while charter school mergers can work, they are far from a simple solution and must be approached carefully.

As our colleagues Lina Bankert and Lauren Schwartze have previously written, a “merger” can take many shapes but, fundamentally, it involves joining together two or more organizations as one entity — through a formal legal agreement — in pursuit of a common goal. In the current financial climate, financial sustainability may be what prompts schools to explore a merger, but any merger conversation should start by defining all of the reasons why it could be a strategic move for each partner in the merger.

These nine considerations will help school leaders determine whether a merger might make sense for their school:

While a merger can support better financial efficiency in the long-term, financial efficiency is neither immediate nor guaranteed. If school leaders are pursuing a merger first and foremost because they believe it promises immediate financial benefits, they should stop and reconsider. A successful merger between two or more charter schools requires a short-term infusion of funding to support the merger process. To conduct due diligence, support internal decision making, plan implementation, and ensure a smooth transition period, school leaders will need financial resources for necessary staff time and legal expertise. Any long-term financial efficiencies will only occur after an initial up-front investment that can sometimes total hundreds of thousands of dollars.  

While a merger can increase financial strength by achieving a larger or more stable revenue base (via combined student enrollment) and by enabling some economies of scale, in practice the additional revenue is often used to support a high-quality school model, via investments to support rigorous and consistent instruction for the merged institution. As a result, a merger should not be thought of as a strategy for “saving money” per se, but instead as a way to combine resources to provide a high-quality education to more students, with the stronger financial footing that comes with that.   

Continue reading


Assessment Myth-Busting During COVID-19

Assessments get a bad rap. Many educators express concerns that assessments are just an exercise in compliance, and especially with COVID-related cancellations, some seem ready to throw assessments out the window altogether. But during COVID-19, educators are likely to face classrooms with a wider-than-usual range of academic abilities due to disruptions in learning that occurred in the spring. 

Assessments are actually the best tool to help identify and narrow those gaps between students that have inevitably widened during this pandemic, as they enable us to gather evidence about where students are in the learning progression. In developing our new book, Bridging Research, Theory, and Practice to Promote Equity and Student Learning, my co-editors and I drew on the experiences of educators across the United States to illustrate how assessments can be used to identify where students are with regard to learning goals, communicate with students and families about learning goals, and support student learning. And during COVID-19, it is even more important to take these steps to ensure that students are on the right track.

 Myth Truth Assessments just let you know if you get the content or not Assessments are a tool that can be used to support learning Assessments are just tests Assessments include a variety of different types of evidence of where students are with regard to learning goals Assessments are just used by teachers and administrators Assessments are useful for students and parents as well as teachers and administrators

That said, assessment alone is not sufficient to enable all students to reach their learning goals. We need educators at all levels to use assessment data to inform next steps in instruction (in the classroom) and resource allocation (at the district, state, and federal level) to ensure that every student has the opportunity to meet learning targets.  Continue reading