Tag Archives: Education equity

An “Abundance Agenda” Must Include K-12 Schooling

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Scarcity is a familiar concept to economists, but most Americans don’t need to crack open a textbook to understand its impact right now. Walking through my local grocery store, there are barren produce displays and freezers with only a fraction of the products they typically stock. And I’ve had to scour the greater Louisville, Kentucky region to find at-home COVID-19 tests for sale.

In a thought-provoking new piece for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson argues that the problem of scarcity isn’t just limited to grocery stores and pharmacies it’s a societywide challenge that we ought to address.

“Altogether, America has too much venting and not enough inventing. We say that we want to save the planet from climate change — but in practice, many Americans are basically dead set against the clean-energy revolution, with even liberal states shutting down zero-carbon nuclear plants and protesting solar-power projects. We say that housing is a human right — but our richest cities have made it excruciatingly difficult to build new houses, infrastructure, or megaprojects. Politicians say that they want better health care — but they tolerate a catastrophically slow-footed FDA that withholds promising tools, and a federal policy that deliberately limits the supply of physicians.”

But there’s a significant sector missing from Thompson’s analysis of our scarcity challenge: K-12 education.

Public schooling is supposed to be a public good that provides equitable access to educational opportunities for all children, in the same way that public parks provide everyone with an opportunity to enjoy natural beauty in our communities.

For many families, however, access to a quality public education is an unfulfilled promise.

Scarcity in K-12 schooling is a much more opaque phenomenon than in higher education. We can easily monitor the ever-rising cost of college tuition, but most parents don’t pay tuition for K-12 schools. Instead, the “price” of attending public schools is embedded in rent or mortgage payments.

Affluent families have an abundance of educational options: they can afford to pay for tuition at private schools, buy a home in sought-after school districts, and provide their children with supplementary learning opportunities like tutoring, music lessons, and athletic programs.

Lower-income families face many more barriers to educational opportunity. Public schools are often their only educational option. As my colleagues and I showed in Priced Out of Public Schools, they also face scarcity in public schooling opportunities due to a combination of where affordable rental housing is located and how school district boundaries are drawn.

Thompson argues for a national “abundance agenda” to address problems created by scarcity. In K-12 education, that could mean an expansion of educational opportunities, particularly for lower-income families.

There are systemic ways to achieve abundance in educational opportunities. We could tackle reforms to update district boundaries more frequently — similar to how we engage in redistricting for legislative seats — to provide better, more equitable access to public K-12 schooling opportunities. Other efforts could expand access to nonpublic education options, as 18 states did in 2021.

Reformers can also expand educational opportunities within the public school system more incrementally through public charter schools. A recently-announced $750 million grant-making effort to support the expansion of public charter schools could serve as a catalyst for a broader reinvigoration of the charter sector, as my colleague Andy Rotherham notes in his latest for The 74.

For too long, families have not had access to the schooling options their children deserve. An “abundance agenda” for educational opportunity has the potential to garner support from the left, right, and center of our increasingly polarized nation and, more importantly, to provide children with equitable access to the public schools they deserve.

Revisiting Missing in the Margins: Recommendations for Resource Allocation

In October 2020, Missing in the Margins: Estimating the Scale of the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis estimated that as many as 3 million K-12 students across the country were at high risk of experiencing minimal or no educational access from spring through fall 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Fast-forward one year later, and available data on 2020-21 enrollment, attendance, and engagement suggest massive missed learning opportunities, especially among the most marginalized students.

Changes to practices, policies, and resource allocation can help support all students — especially those with limited access to learning opportunities in 2020-21. In this concluding third blog in a series, we expand upon our updated practice and policy recommendations for 2021 by focusing the necessary resources to fund these changes.

Sufficient funding is key in order for schools to implement effective practices to meet the needs of students with disrupted learning experiences. Additional funding is also a key component of implementing significant policy change. As leaders and policymakers seek to encourage and implement new practices and policies, they must also allocate sufficient, sustainable resources to support the work underway. 

Thankfully, flexible federal stimulus funds of more than $120 billion, directed at districts and states based on the low-income students they serve, could go a long way toward meeting that funding need. To put this amount of money in context, this infusion of federal funds represents almost 16% of pre-pandemic annual nationwide K-12 education expenditures.* 

Some of the few requirements for district spending of federal stimulus funds include:

  • At least 20% must be used to address learning loss, including academic, social, and emotional needs.
  • Funding should especially target subgroups of students who are more likely to be deeply affected by COVID-19 disruptions, such as students experiencing homelessness, and students in foster care. 

Although stimulus funds might make districts feel flush in the short term, there are still reasons to be concerned in the longer term. There are many competing priorities for using these funds, like expanding technological capacity for remote learning or renovating facilities. Some districts are simply relying on stimulus funds to make up for shortfalls in state and local funding. And, in 2024, stimulus funds will expire

Also, using stimulus funds for direct student supports can be complicated because many of the best practices are people- and relationship-driven, which might require investments in new staff and more staff time. Students with disrupted educational experiences benefit greatly from strong relationships with a caring adult with the means to help them navigate support services, but if districts fund new staff positions with time-limited federal funds, those positions could be at-risk when funding expires.

Providing the services students need, while still planning for a sustainable financial future, means that schools and districts should lean on collaborative models. Community-based organizations with complementary skill sets could help expand schools’ capacity for non-instructional support without expanding in-school staff. For example, a homeless-services organization could partner with a school district to make sure students and families experiencing homelessness have their basic needs met. Or a community-based college support organization can supplement the work of school-based counselors. These partnerships take work to be aligned and effective, but for students with deeper needs they can be transformational — particularly if they can evolve in response to changing student needs over time. 

As district leaders make school spending plans for learning recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic, state and federal policymakers also have work to do. Many traditional state and federal funding streams are not as flexible as stimulus funds, and now could be the perfect time to re-examine state school funding policies with greater equity in mind. Meanwhile, advocates at the local and state level can help support students at the margins by demanding transparency about local and state spending to support learning recovery, and keeping the pressure on districts and states to put the needs of students with the greatest unmet needs front and center. Policymakers must plan now to help schools avoid a fiscal cliff as stimulus funds expire, to allocate resources where they can be most effective for students, and to keep effective local work going long after stimulus funds run out. 

To read the Revisiting Missing in the Margins blog series in its entirety, click here

*In 2017-18, total U.S. K-12 spending across local, state, and federal governments totaled over $760 billion annually.

Revisiting Missing in the Margins: Recommendations for Policy

In October 2020, Missing in the Margins: Estimating the Scale of the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis estimated that as many as 3 million K-12 students across the country were at high risk of experiencing minimal or no educational access from spring through fall 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Fast-forward one year later, and available data on 2020-21 enrollment, attendance, and engagement suggest massive missed learning opportunities, especially among the most marginalized students.

Changes to practices, policies, and resource allocation can help support all students — especially those with limited access to learning opportunities in 2020-21. This blog post is the second in a series for 2021 where we will expand upon our recommendations, linking practices with policies.

In addition to school and district practices, policies play an important role in facilitating learning acceleration, especially for marginalized and underserved students. Policymakers have already responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by either providing flexibility to schools so that they can remain student-centered in their decision-making or by removing barriers that limit the ability of schools to better serve the needs of students. However, we know that additional policies are needed to ensure that schools and districts can better identify students who need more support. These policies should also ensure that students receive effective interventions that are personalized to their unique needs. Similar to school and district practices, students and their family or support unit should be at the center of every policymaking decision. In particular, four policy areas can support learning recovery efforts: 

1. Data Transparency
Most state and district policies related to enrollment, attendance, and engagement data have not kept up with the new demands of the COVID-19 era. These policies are typically set at the federal and state levels but local school districts should do more to collect these data at the student-level. Without more accurate and disaggregated data that are shared publicly, especially related to attendance and engagement, schools are at risk of not identifying the students who need the most support. 

2. Accountability
In response to the pandemic and its impact on student learning, states put in place “hold harmless” provisions around attendance, grade retention, and high school graduation, and amended accountability systems with federal waivers. Based on the lessons learned from the past two years, the federal government and states should conduct a comprehensive review of those temporary policies, make thoughtful decisions for the current and upcoming school years, and communicate clearly about their goals for students in order to create predictability for schools and encourage a focus on learning acceleration.

3. Comprehensive and Targeted Interventions
Since the start of the pandemic, the consequences of uneven local capacity to address ongoing national crises without effective policies and guidance have been clear. State and federal policies should enable every school and district to create an effective system of comprehensive and targeted learning interventions to meet the needs of each student. Importantly, this system should incentivize collaboration and partnership with other child-serving systems, organizations, agencies, and community partners.

4. Additional Time for Learning
One of the most important ways to make up for missed learning opportunities is through additional learning time. This could include extended school days and years, summer and out-of-school tutoring and supplementary learning, or extending time in school for older students before a transition to postsecondary learning. Any of these initiatives will require policy changes. For example, staffing for extended school days or years are likely to implicate collective bargaining agreements with teachers unions, and transitional years or “year 13” high school opportunities will affect the reporting of graduation rates used for accountability purposes.

These policy recommendations, in combination with effective school and district practices, can help students accelerate their learning. However, these policy recommendations also rely on adequate resource allocations, up next in this series. You can catch up here

Revisiting Missing in the Margins: Recommendations for Practice

In October 2020, Missing in the Margins: Estimating the Scale of the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis estimated that as many as 3 million K-12 students across the country were at high risk of experiencing minimal or no educational access from spring through fall 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Fast-forward one year later, and available data on 2020-21 enrollment, attendance, and engagement suggest massive missed learning opportunities, especially among the most marginalized students.

Changes to practices, policies, and resource allocation can help support all students — especially those with limited access to learning opportunities in 2020-21. This blog post is the first in a series for 2021 where we will expand upon our recommendations, beginning with practices.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, young people across the country have experienced profound disruptions to their educational trajectories. This is particularly true for young people furthest from opportunity, including undocumented students and those in foster care or who are experiencing homelesness. These young people need intensive support from their schools in order to accelerate their learning and address their socio-emotional needs. How can schools, community partners, and child-serving systems work together to implement practices at a local school and community level that can accelerate learning for students with differing needs and experiences over the past year and a half?

In order to determine the most appropriate support, schools, districts, and community partners must listen to and center the needs of young people and their families, with the goal of more effective coordination of services and practices. While an individualized, collaborative case management approach for students would be resource intensive, there must be a focus on practical and innovative supports that are developed in partnership with each student’s family or support unit. 

In addition to a case management approach, schools should also supplement in-person instruction with strategies that combine additional staff and resources including: 

  • Support outside of the traditional school day, like evening and weekend high-impact tutoring or instructional time. When designing additional instructional time, schools should consider an appropriate frequency and length of time, in addition to adequate professional development for tutors.
  • Small, cohort-based intensive acceleration academies to focus on large skill gaps. As part of this strategy, small groups of students would receive support in a cohort model, typically during holiday and summer breaks and weekends. 
  • Structured partnerships with families to collaboratively set annual, quarterly, and monthly goals. Such a partnership is similar to the case management model for students with disabilities who have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or young adults receiving intensive counseling. As part of the partnership, these goals would align to a personalized learning plan that is based on the needs of the student. The benefits of such a plan include student ownership, more flexible content, and data-driven decisions.
  • Evidence-based literacy instruction, especially for younger students and English language learners. This can also be coupled with effective parent empowerment resources and tools. 
  • Leveraging innovative instructional models, such as blended learning models, flipped classrooms, or project-based learning models.

While a safe return to in-person school will support the needs of many young people, there may also be opportunities to provide interventions outside a traditional classroom. Some of these interventions could include alternative high schools, high-quality virtual learning, mastery or competency-based learning models, learning pods, and micro-schools or homeschooling. These interventions would be especially beneficial for students whose needs were not being met by traditional in-person school prior to the pandemic. 

In the coming months and years, schools, districts, and other partners must ensure that they center the needs of all students, especially the most marginalized students, when making instructional decisions. These practice-based decisions should be supported by coherent policy recommendations, up next in this series.

How Much Do You Know About Rural Education? Part 4: Reversing the Teacher Shortage Trend

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

This concludes Dr. Jared Bigham’s four-part series for Ahead of the Heard amplifying issues facing rural school districts, students, and communities. Read the series in its entirety here, here, and here.

My grandfather used to say, “You’ll sit a long time with your mouth wide open before a fried chicken flies in.” So too goes the work of recruiting and retaining rural teachers across our country, as most young or new teachers increasingly pursue jobs in urban and suburban areas. Many rural schools and districts spent considerable resources and time on this issue before the nationwide teacher shortage began in 2009; it’s a challenge that continues to grow with each passing school year. Whether it’s the competition of pay scales, in vogue fusion restaurants, craft breweries, or strip malls offered in urban or suburban areas, rural districts have started relying on grow-your-own models to meet talent needs.

To be clear, there’s a difference in hiring local and hiring local intentionally through grow-your-own talent strategies. Hiring local means you give Johnny a job because he grew up in the community, left and earned a teaching certification, and now wants to move back home to work. This scenario is OK if Johnny is, or has the potential to be, a good educator. But the scenario also represents the double-edged sword of rural human capital plans that hire based on tribalism vs. talent acquisition. The problem arises if Johnny is only a mediocre educator, because in most cases he’ll be in the classroom until he’s ready to retire…or becomes the principal. Unfortunately, this is a common practice in rural schools, whether it’s in response to a sense of loyalty to community members or to the pressing need to fill positions.

Please don’t misunderstand me: it’s not that rural communities can’t or shouldn’t hire local. It’s that the most successful rural schools are meeting their hiring challenges through intentional, proactive strategies of identifying local talent, recruiting that talent through various incentives, and retaining that talent by cultivating their potential as educators. 

A great example of this is Globe Unified School District in Arizona, led by Superintendent Jerry Jennex. As recently as five years ago, his district faced teacher shortages and a high turnover rate before implementing a talent pipeline and retention strategy. His team identified talented, local non-certified staff working in the field of education as paraprofessionals and Head Start workers, and supported them in obtaining a traditional teacher certification through the satellite campus of a partnering university. Globe USD also prioritized alternative licensure pathways, which make up approximately a quarter of its districtwide K-12 teaching staff.

For prospective teachers taking the alternative certification route, Jennex said they, “Identify people that have the knowledge and technical skills; then we help them with the pedagogy side.” “Our district vision statement is Capturing Hearts and Empowering Minds. This is how we approach our recruitment of community members to be teachers. We want them to feel a connection to our district, and we will take care of supporting them on the instruction side,” he added. In addition, Globe USD has an innovative strategy for student teachers they want to keep in the district. The district pays student teachers 50% of a first-year teacher’s salary, covers health insurance, allows them to participate in the state retirement system, and counts their student teaching as one year of service.   

Jennex said they also put just as much effort into retention as they do recruitment. His team wants to support new teachers in “growing into the profession.” As a result, their turnover rates over the past five years have dropped from 25% to single digits. The key to Globe USD’s success? “It’s one of the great things about being in a smaller rural district, we can try innovative things quickly without the bureaucracies of larger, urban districts,” Jennex said.

In addition to serving as Superintendent of Stanfield Elementary School District #24 in rural Arizona, Dr. Melissa Sadorf is part of the U.S. Department of Education School Ambassador Fellowship program. Like many rural district leaders, she competes for talent with surrounding urban and suburban districts that offer much higher pay scales. To combat this, her school district developed an intentional, strategic grow-your-own talent model that takes investing in future teachers to the next level. Sadorf’s district recruits current non-certified staff members and offers to pay for them to complete a credential in education. In exchange, the new teachers commit to teaching in the district for three years. Sadorf says that the strategy has not only been successful in recruiting local talent, but it’s also been successful in retaining that talent. The teachers feel they have invested themselves in the community, and, in turn, the community has invested itself in them. “There is a level of mutual respect because it’s an investment on both sides…the board’s resources and the person’s time and effort,” said Sadorf. 

God loves a normal bell curve, and they’re seen in just about every facet of life where statistics are applied. However, teaching is one area we can’t afford to have a majority of practitioners that are just “average.” We owe students so much more than that. Some of the best rural schools and districts across the country are successfully using grow-your-own strategies to stack the teacher pipeline deck so that the distribution is skewed to the betterment of students and communities. 

Dr. Jared Bigham is a fourth-generation rural educator. He serves as senior advisor on Workforce & Rural Initiatives for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, is board chair of the Tennessee Rural Education Association, and is active in the National Rural Education Association. He is the proud husband to an assistant principal and father of four children.