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Biden’s tone deaf declaration of mandatory testing

In Mountain View, California, the public high schools are going back to in-person learning this week for the first time in over a year. They are doing a trial run where students who opted-in will attend two periods each afternoon except Wednesdays. For reasons that escape this writer, they have not had any live instruction on Wednesdays for this entire school year. The students will bring their chromebooks and sit in classrooms not taught by their teachers and do zoom learning but on campus. After this week students can opt-in for the remainder of the school year (about six weeks) or can finish the year online at home. Either way students are essentially continuing virtual learning until the end of the school year.

My question is this: with so little time left for any kind of meaningful engagement with schools, why are we still talking about testing? While some children thrived in the online environment, evaluating schools as if this was a typical year is absurd. It is a true outlier, an anomaly.

In February the Biden administration said that schools must give standardized tests this year. In March two states applied for waivers from annual testing. Biden said no. This past week the administration was unwavering even as many schools have not returned to any form of in-person learning. His outdated stance on testing is generating considerable backlash. In February acting Assistant Secretary of Education Ian Rosenblum wrote: ““President Biden’s first priority is to safely re-open schools and get students back in classrooms, learning face-to-face from teachers with their fellow students.” Biden promised all schools would reopen this year, and they have not. Yet, he acts as if in terms of education this is just any other year. Furthermore, in December 2019 he declared that he would end federal mandated standardized testing, a stressor that has seen backlash since its inception under No Child Left Behind. It is disappointing to see him not only not end federal testing but also to double down on testing in a year that has brought unprecedented stress to students, teachers, schools and parents. Biden needs to re-think his priorities in education.

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Life isn’t fair…but school should be.

Life isn’t fair. Not everyone is born into resourced households. Not every child is wanted. Not everyone has loving parents. Some kids have parents who are college professors and others’ parents are gardeners. While neither one is inherently better, the children of the college professors enter the world with more social capital (inherited) to navigate the education world. Annette Lareau has researched and written extensively about the differences between growing up in different social classes (I highly recommend Unequal Childhoods). And while we don’t start out on equal ground, education, to some extent, tries to make up for this inequity. Yet, colleges and universities, for all their pontification about providing equal opportunity to all, have becoming increasingly inequitable.

Ultra elite colleges and universities have few spots available. Institutions like Harvard and Stanford spout rhetoric about their work on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), but they remain exclusive. In her December 2020 New York Times article, Gina Bellafante sums the problem up well:

“It is hard to miss the paradox of an approach professing fidelity to the work of heightening access as it remains fundamentally wedded to the business of rejection. A school’s prestige is embedded in saying no. …In the world of higher education, the real work of diversity, equity and inclusion would demand a radical rethinking of admissions.”

While a 2019 study from Pew Research shows that most universities admit most applicants, there are limited spaces in the roughly top 50 colleges whose admissions rates can be as low as three or four percent. Many of the spaces are taken up by legacy admissions and sports. For example, 36% of Amherst students are athletes. Some colleges have as much as 25% of their freshman class admissions taken by legacy admission candidates. (You can pick up Jeff Selingo’s book Who Gets in and Why for a more in-depth look at this issue). Qualified students often miss out on spots because there simply are not enough spots for the growing population of students and because those spots are given away.

So not only are the odds stacked against most students before they were born, the testing required for admissions is undermined to the point that the tests don’t really tell anything. Both the SAT and ACT have been accused of gender and racial bias. Furthermore, even the College Board, who administers the SAT, acknowledges that test prep can improve scores. Parents from higher income households are more likely to have access to expensive test prep classes and tutors. So, using either test as a factor in admissions is likely to benefit economically advantaged students. Fortunately, many universities (including the University of California system) are beginning to make admissions test optional or eliminate these standardized tests altogether. (NOTE: The uneven access of tests during COVID-19 has prompted many universities to temporarily eliminate them as criteria. It will be interesting to see if the admitted class of 2021 looks different as a result; I doubt it will).

And to add insult to injury, the admissions college scandal (a.k.a. the Varsity Blues Scandal) shed light on the blatant pay for play that has occurred in college admissions. As if the rich didn’t already have every advantage, they bribed admissions officers and coaches and essentially bought test scores so that their children could get into top universities including Stanford, University of Southern California, and UC Berkeley. While we as a society inherently know that the world is unfair, we expect our institutions of higher education to act morally.

Sadly, our higher education institutions have been corrupted with money and power. The elite, in particular, are happy to keep members in and others out. They have created admissions requirements that favor the rich. And the problem is that life is already unfair. Education, and college in particular, provide an opportunity to level the playing field, just a bit. So, when higher education doesn’t invest in that opportunity in a genuine way, we, as a society, are all hurt.

What I don’t like about nonprofits

Nonprofits do some of the most important work in the United States.  I regularly read reporting from nonprofits such as EdSource, NPE, and Pew Research.  I give to nonprofits that support education research, preservation of nature, run aquariums and more.  Nonprofits provide essential services, education, and entertainment. The vast majority of the nonprofits have an annual operating budget of less than $500,000. They operate as a small business but receive donations and nonprofit tax status. They are sometimes valuable entities. They also push policy agendas, influence curriculum and offer money with their own magic solutions.

My problem with nonprofits is two-fold: they are influential and they fill gaps that shouldn’t exist.

  1. Nonprofits fill gaps: many non-profits fill gaps not addressed sufficiently by the community. Soup kitchens provide food to those who don’t have enough. Nonprofits run after-school enrichment programs, tutoring centers, and sports. They provide free medical care and legal advice. Nonprofits educate small children through preschool programs and public television. They fundraise through events and individual asks to donors. And when I get asked to donate, I often give, but really I would prefer not to be asked at all. It isn’t that I don’t want to give, but I would rather these programs not exist separately. I would prefer to just pay more in taxes and have the government run these services for all, so that it isn’t a matter of who is lucky enough to get extra support. And while you can argue that many programs run by non-profits supplement government-run programs, the fact that additional nonprofit support is necessary means that these programs are underfunded. It would be better for society if instead of individuals such as myself choose which nonprofits are worthy of our support, the given to non-profits was simply paid in taxes. To put this in context, according to NPTrust Americans gave “$449.64 billion in 2019.” Corporations gave “$21.09 billion in 2019.” This money is spread over a wide variety of nonprofits from churches to after-school programs to arts schools to political action organizations. The money that is given could go into the government to expand and enhance existing programs. For example, putting the money given by individuals into schools would increase school budgets by 50%, approximately $6,000 per student. Just imagine what could be done in terms of teacher pay, classroom size, and after school programs.
  2. Nonprofit influence: while most nonprofits are small, the big ones such as the foundations wield considerable influence over policy. In the Gates Foundation 2018 annual letter, Melinda Gates wrote “World leaders tend to take our phone calls and seriously consider what we have to say. Cash-strapped school districts are more likely to divert money and talent toward ideas they think we will fund.” Although Melinda acknowledges the influence they have, she is unapologetic. The foundation simply is acting as a policy maker without actually being part of the government. Foundations employ experts who testify in front of legislatures. The Gates foundation even used their funds to launch a separate lobbying group. The reality is that nonprofits often in their influence over policy makers and in the ways in which they provide funding shape policy.

Nonprofits are not inherently bad in their goals. They want to help. Theoretically, their goals come from a good place, but with hundreds of different nonprofits pushing different policies, we waste a tremendous amount as a society tinkering while not really getting anywhere.

Ethnic Studies does not mean anti-White

In March the California State Board of Education unanimously approved a 900 page Ethnic Studies curriculum to help teachers educate students about groups that are different than them. The curriculum is voluntary and was developed over a multiple year effort and with thousands of public comments. The resulting curriculum is the fourth draft. The curriculum “helps students see themselves as active agents in the interethnic bridge-building process we call American life.”

Since the approval of the curriculum, the “hate” over the optional curriculum has exploded. A small but vocal community of residents have vehemently opposed the ethnic studies curriculum. It has been called anti-White and anti-American. Opponents in Los Alamitos, a city in Orange County, wrote in their letter of opposition to the elective that it “teaches children that America is based on white supremacy and that white people are racists, even if they don’t know it.” This is a fairly far-reaching opinion. The reality of our history in America is that the white population has dominated other cultures forcing Native Americans off their land in a death march and interning Japanese-Americans, for example. Knowing our past is not designating today’s children as necessarily racists. The idea is that they talk about different cultures in hopes that there is more acceptance of people who are different than ourselves regardless of race or ethnicity.

Other opponents believe the curriculum is anti-Western forcing students to self-identify as oppressors or victims. In a letter to the Santa Clara County Board of Education, residents began by stating “We are concerned citizens, parents, and voters of Santa Clara County.” Yet, a careful examination of the signatories shows that many of the supposed citizens, parents and voters are not actually residents of the county. They live in places such as San Mateo and San Bruno (in a neighboring community), Napa, Walnut Creek, and Encino (more than 300 miles from Santa Clara county).

They go on to suggest that the curriculum should have parent input. Never mind the fact that the curriculum has gone through multiple drafts with public comments. There has been plenty of opportunity to voice an opinion. The signatories, many of whom are Asian, argue that this has been put upon them and the curriculum is full of hate. They are particularly wary of the “critical ethnic studies” that may be placed in schools. It especially interesting that this is occurring in Santa Clara County, an area considered to be quite liberal, and where 80% of the student body in the county are non-White. Thirty-percent of the student body is Asian. So, here is a small group suggesting that teaching about other cultures is anti-American.

Parents have argued that teaching ethnic studies is the equivalent of teaching anti-White curriculum. This bimodal interpretation of humanity is disturbing. Learning about other cultures is not equivalent to being anti-White. You can value both Black lives and White lives as well as Asians, Latinos, and other ethnicities. The opponents seem to be scared, of what, I am not sure. It is as if they don’t understand the value of other cultures. Research has shown that enrollment in ethnic studies courses can improve attendance, grades, and other educational outcomes for high school students. Furthermore, it is clear that there is a deep need for better cultural understanding. Police shootings of blacks, violence against Asian-Americans, and continued attempts to disenfranchise minority voters are just examples of how far we still have to go. Not only will our students benefit from inclusion of ethnic studies but is clear that many of the residents of California would as well.

Seeing the Disparity in Opportunity

As I walk through the Upper East Side of New York in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, I see kids everywhere. The playground at the back of the public elementary school is filled with screams and laughter. In the north end of Central Park, there are classes having PE or lunch. Some kids are wearing uniforms; others are not. The vast majority of the children I see are white. As I walk westward and up towards 100th, there are less children in the park. On the West Side when I pass the local elementary school, the playground is silent. There are no children to be seen anywhere on the streets. It’s pick up time but there are no parents waiting. I have passed this elementary school every day for three months. It has closed and opened many times over the course of these months. The vast majority of the students in this school are Black or Latino.

The media often reports on the disparity in educational opportunity particularly over this past year. A walk through neighborhoods that are literally separated by a few city blocks puts this disparity in front of your eyes. Unless you are blind, you can’t ignore the inequality. This is an inequality that affects generations.

Not my school

There is a curious loyalty that we universally have to our family, our team, our school. It makes sense. We want to be positive about communities in which we are involved. There is a pride in being part of a place. We invest in our school. It is the one we know. It is the we care about.

This isn’t just my opinion, an annual poll of adults in the United States to gauge their attitudes on public education backs this theory up. There are some common threads year after year. Overall, adults and parents agree that education is important. In the 2020 survey, “Six in 10 adults and 7 in 10 public school parents call public education highly important in their vote for president this fall.” Generally, support for education is high but increasing taxes is not.

While different issues have emerged as more important than others in different years, there is one universal year after year: the rating of local schools vs education nationally. Invariably, survey respondents give their local school a higher grade, usually around an A and national schools a low grade, often in the C or D range. The local school district and state assessment comes somewhere in between these.

It is fascinating, although perhaps not surprising, that adults consistently believe that their local school is outstanding while maintaining a largely negative view of the education system at large. They know the local school. Their children likely attend or attended it. They might know a teacher there. They walk by it and see kids playing happily. It is tangible and in sight. The national system is abstract. Furthermore, the media and policy makers paint mostly a negative view of the school system, often decrying our “failing” schools. So, while schools as a whole are inadequate, local schools are not?

If so many people believe their local school is doing well, then how can schools collectively be failing? More importantly if education is highly important, why are willing to not put the money behind it to support them? The truth is that we are willing to fund and support schools only locally. School foundations run by parents are able to raise millions of dollars in some areas to support schools. In Palo Alto, California, where the median home value tops $3 million, the Palo Alto parent group raised over $6 million during the 2019-2020 to fund additional teachers, aides, and activities. School bonds pass at a higher rate (84% across 13 states) at the ballot than other bond measures (around 84% across 13 states). When it comes to taxes beyond the local, the electorate says no. For more than 15 years, survey respondents have said funding in schools is the biggest problem schools face yet when asked if taxes should be raised to better fund schools 40-50% (depending on the year of the survey) oppose raising taxes. If it’s “Not My School,” then when it comes to sharing the wealth, we are unlikely to give to the broader community.

Think big for Fall 2021

To say it has been a rough year plus for students, parents, and teachers would be an understatement. Schools opened and closed. Some kids lived on Zoom while others were sent homework packets. Women left the workforce in great numbers to help support their now at home full-time children. Teachers left the profession at a larger rate than usual, and those that stayed are exhausted.

As the school year begins to close, there is great debate about what the next year will look like. Discussions around “learning loss,” safety and reopening abound. In California Governor Newsom has doubled down on full reopening of schools this Fall. While I rarely support Newsom’s statements as he tends to be a do-nothing governor, I would be very surprised to see schools not open normally in the Fall. All the data points to this being not only feasible but also absolutely necessary for our students. So, rather than plan more “re-opening” strategies, schools should right now be focusing entirely on re-engaging the community in public schools.

The 2020-21 school year saw a mass exodus of students from the public school system in states across the country. Michigan reported a drop of 53,200 students (4.1%) in December 2020 from previous years. New York Public Schools had their largest decline since 1981, enrolling 66,424 fewer students (a 2.6% drop) than in 2019-2020. California lost 155,000 students, a decline five times greater than the current trend of 20,000-30,000 students to lower birth rates. According to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, homeschooling nearly doubled for the year. Schools tend to be funded based on their enrollment. It is important to entice students back to the public schools next year.

Truly, this is an opportunity to bring out the very best schools have to offer. It is a time to demonstrate the creative teachers who have students clamoring to be in their classes. It is a time to show off the robotics clubs and arts programs and sports that connect students beyond the academic classroom. It is a time to promote education as an interactive partnership between teachers, students and parents. Elementary schools should be throwing up fresh coats of paint on their murals and planning community picnics for the summer to welcome the community back. High schools need to take a breath from the college rat race and give students back just a little of all they missed – homecoming events, school spirit weeks, and prom. They need some fun! Many students struggled with online learning and had to balance additional stresses such as watching younger siblings or loss of employment by a parent. The need for human connection goes way beyond academic needs. Schools have to address the emotional well-being of students before they can take on the academic needs.

Schools have been given significant additional funds for next year through federal and state programs. This is an opportunity to provide free after-school programs in programming, the arts, and more. Rather than just think of “returning to normal,” I’d love to see schools transform to even better. Why aim low when we can do even better? Schools are amazing learning environments. With the extra funding coming their way, I challenge teachers, parents and administrators to think outside the box at what could be. What does your dream learning environment look like? Use this re-emergence as an opportunity to take even just one step closer to that dream!

Moving forward: Challenges in Education

For the better part of a year, the vast majority of education news has related to the pandemic: what schools are and aren’t doing, anger from parents, battles between teachers and policymakers, the effect on students and more. Researchers are accumulating an impressive amount of data which will be analyzed for decades to come. All of this will hopefully yield some important lessons to inform future decisions. Still, when schools open in the Fall as they did in 2019, the same challenges will be there, some even bigger than before. Just a few of these include:

  1. Teacher shortages: Teacher shortages have been building for decades. This past year has been particularly discouraging. Early retirement is up 44% in Michigan this year. Teacher attrition rates in the United States are already higher (on average about 8%) than in other countries (Finland’s is 4%). High stress, low pay and poor working conditions are just some of the reasons teachers leave. Furthermore, less people are choosing to enter the profession in the first place. According to a report from the Education Policy Institute in 2019: “From the 2008–2009 to 2015–2016 school years, there was a 15.4 percent drop in the number of education degrees awarded and a 27.4 percent drop in the number of people who completed a teacher preparation program.” So, we have large numbers leaving the profession and not enough people coming in. Ultimately, this hurts students who end up in overcrowded classrooms or without qualified professionals providing their education.
  2. Teacher pay: As noted above one of the major issues in teacher attrition is low pay. Simply put we don’t pay teachers enough for the work they do. Education is perhaps the single most important service a government can provide the community. By not paying teachers what they are worth, we struggle to attract and retain talented individuals to the profession. When I met my husband, I was in my third year teaching. I had a master’s degree and I made less than half what he did as a third year engineer, not counting his stock options and bonuses. According to the OECD, United States teacher salaries rank 27th among 32 developed countries. Teachers are paid significantly less than other professions with similar levels of education. Simply put, teachers need to be paid more.
  3. Unequal funding: The distribution of funding still favors the upper, middle class White students in the United States. According to a 2018 report from Education Trust, schools with high concentrations of Black or Latino students receive on average $1,800 less per student than low minority schools. Schools serving high-income students receive approximately $1,000 more per student than low-income students. Even if you reject the argument that high poverty schools need more money to provide necessary resources, there is no reason why schools that education students of different races or incomes should receive different amounts. At the minimum every school should receive equal funding for students. (You can read my thoughts on what is truly equitable funding elsewhere). The school funding formula is complex and varies by state, but ultimately it is the government’s job to provide equitable funding for every student.
  4. Less experienced teachers in majority poverty schools: Majority poverty schools face unique challenges. Research shows that as compared to schools with high-income students, schools with high concentrations of low socioeconomic students come to school less prepared, have higher absentee rates, have lower rates of parental involvement, and higher rates of health-related issues. The least experienced teachers are often placed in these challenging environments, ill-prepared or equipped to deal with problems that go beyond simply educating children. High-poverty schools are likely to have large numbers of newly credentialed or un-credentialed teachers who have less experience teaching. Attrition is higher in the first five years of teaching, which means that there is high turnover in high-poverty schools, which negatively affects the school climate and ultimately student outcomes. The good news that recent research shows a narrowing in the gap of teacher experience in some places. For example, New York City has been able to increase the qualifications of teachers in high-poverty schools.
  5. Unequal opportunity: segregation by class and race
  6. The billionaire “silver bullet:” There is an arrogance amongst billionaires that because they have been successful in one area of their lives, they know how to fix the world. Education is a target for many of the billionaires. You know the group I’m talking about it: Gates, Zuckerberg, Reed, Walton, and Carnegie, to name a few. Non-education professionals swoop in with their big money and ask desperate schools to jump through hoops to implement their “silver bullet” solution. As has written about extensively, these programs not only tend to fail but also cost schools valuable resources that could otherwise be spent on best practices for students. If billionaires want to contribute to educational outcomes, they should simply pay more taxes or donate the money with no strings attached.
  7. Charter school expansion: Although recent legislation has begun to curb the growth of charter schools, their growth continues to take valuable funds from public school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “Between fall 2000 and fall 2017, overall public charter school enrollment increased from 0.4 million to 3.1 million.” Charter schools are funded with public education funds but operate independently of school districts. Their teachers are not members of the teacher’s union. They determine their curriculum and schedule. The cost to school districts is non-trivial. Operating two education systems is expensive. Furthermore, charter schools divert funds from traditional public schools. This is a problem that cannot be ignored as we move forward.
  8. Multi-generational poverty: people like to ignore the simple fact that poverty does affect educational outcomes. We simply cannot provide an equitable system without reducing the number of children living in poverty. Being raised in poverty can impact not only cognitive ability due to poor nutrition or access to food but also educational attainment. Research shows that multigenerational poverty can have even a greater negative impact.

These are problems that have persisted for year and in some cases decades, which I suppose is why they continue to be largely ignored. Policy that tinkers at the edges of change has done little to improve our system. It is time to stop fooling around and make meaningful change. Addressing one or more of the above will impact generations to come.

Lessons that COULD be learned from a year in a pandemic

For better or worse the past year has been a giant natural experiment in education. Some schools have been closed for in-person learning for more than a year while others have opened in some form. Some have provided the neediest students back on campus while leaving the more “self-sufficient” students to make do with ZOOM or other virtual learning tool. Teachers have worked exhausting hours trying to make virtual, hybrid and even pen and paper work for students. They should be applauded.

This year also has taught us a lot about what works and what doesn’t:

  1. The value of in-person learning: for years there has been a large push by some education reformers to move from in-person learning to technology. Often touted as “personalized learning,” reformers argue that students can easily learn everything they need sitting on a computer all day. If it was unclear before, it is no longer. Even with live interaction with teachers and other students, students struggled through a long year of online learning. Teachers have expressed strong feelings about the negative effects of online all the time including learning loss both academically and socially. A recent study from the Center for Disease Control found that online learning can be damaging to children’s emotional and mental health. Additionally, virtual learning is not universal. It does not necessarily mean live interaction with teachers. A U.S. Department of Education survey from March 2021 found that “10% of eighth-graders, and 5% of fourth-graders, are getting no live instruction at all when learning remotely.” They are essentially being given homework packets.
  2. Virtual Learning has its place, but it’s a small one: one discovery is that online can work when absolutely necessary. For example, inclement weather in many parts of the country can close schools. Now schools may consider making a snow day into a zoom day rather than disrupt the school schedule. Having said that there is a still a gap in access to the internet. The schools have made a major effort to connect all students, but it isn’t there yet. Furthermore, several studies point to a disparate impact of the online learning environment particularly for blacks and Latinos who have had less access to internet than their white peers: “he October US Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey shows that 91 percent of households with K–12 students always or usually have access to a device for learning and internet access. Although gaps have narrowed since the spring, Black and Hispanic households are still three to four percentage points less likely than white households to have reliable access to devices, and three to six percentage points less likely to have reliable access to the internet. “
  3. Hybrid learning is worse than virtual: having some students in the classroom and some online is not only a logistical nightmare but also in many ways worse than virtual learning. Teachers can’t fully take advantage of the in-person setting without leaving the virtual learners out. Often teachers found that regardless of having students in the classroom, the easiest was just to treat it like everyone was virtual learning. So, in essence students just sat in their teachers’ classroom doing virtual learning rather than at home. The value for students on campus was some interaction during breaks, but it is difficult to argue that the academic experience was better.
  4. Infrastructure continues to be ignored: even before the pandemic, there were classrooms without proper venting, heating, or space. You may recall the story of students sitting in Baltimore classrooms wrapped in their coats trying to learn in the winter cold. Guidelines for school reopening required spreading out students in already overcrowded classrooms. The only way to do this is to leave some students at home (although more than one policy maker demonstrating their lack of awareness of schools, teaching, and students suggested that schools just move outside.) Even if schools could get students inside, many of them did not meet the guidelines for ventilation. School infrastructure has been neglected for years. Mountain View Union School District, a relatively small and wealthy K-8 district in California, announced early in the 2020-21 school year that it would take them until at least January 2021 to prepare get the school venting up to the required standards (the district opened with limited capacity in mid-March 2021). The crisis shed additional light on the crumbling schools in this country. It is unclear whether the crisis will be enough to prompt the expenditure of funds to fix the schools.
  5. Disparity between socioeconomic status widely apparent in schools: Access to in-person learning heavily favored upper middle class and middle class white children. According to a report from the Center for Disease Control, Black and Latino parents were more concerned about school re-openings and less likely to send their students to in-person learning during the pandemic. Lawsuits to reopen schools came largely from white and middle class parents. A survey by the U.S. Department of Education released in March found that “68% of Asian, 58% of Black and 56% of Hispanic fourth graders were learning entirely remotely, while just 27% of White students were.” Resourced parents are stretching themselves to the limit to put their kids in private school primarily because private schools were able to open for in-person learning five days a week.
  6. Schools are also daycare: As much as we would like to glorify schools as being all about education, the reality is that we have grown a society that needs them to be regular daycare. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics “among married-couple families with children…64.2 percent had both parents employed.”  Parents are highly dependent on schools to provide childcare. When school went online, parents juggled what they could, but many ended up having to become one-income households. Women left the workforce by the millions to watch their children, help with school work, and get students online. Women’s workforce participation has dropped to 57%, a level not seen since 1988. Without schools and viable alternatives, children were put first. And while traditionalists may applaud the stay at home mom, ultimately it hurts women to lose opportunities. Furthermore, many households depend on being dual-income to survive. The impact on families is likely to be felt for years to come.

Even after a year of virtual learning and additional knowledge about its negative effects, many school districts plan to continue virtual learning, according to a recent RAND study. So, perhaps we as a society have learned very little from a global pandemic. I hope not, but hope may be all I have until our policymakers wake up to the realities of the educational needs of our community.

Community college: the hardest sector in Education

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Community colleges were founded with the intention to provide college skills for student in preparation of transfer to four year post-secondary institutions.  Over the past century community colleges have evolved to play a vital role in the higher education landscape (Dougherty, 1998).  Community colleges are not just transfer institutions anymore. Their purpose is multifold: transfer, associate’s degrees, certificates and training, and community center. With so many different purposes, community colleges have some of the hardest work to do in all of education.

In 2009, over forty percent of undergraduates in the United States were enrolled in community colleges (Jenkins, 2011).  Despite enrolling over 12.4 million students across the nation, transfer rates remain low.  Only twenty-two percent of students who enter community colleges with the intent to transfer actually do so (McCormick & Carroll, 1997).  California Community Colleges (CCC) enroll approximately two-thirds of California’s college students (Horn & Lew, 2007).  In California, about twenty-three percent of students degree seekers transferred to four year institutions (Moore & Schulock, 2010).   Six years after enrolling less than thirty percent of those students had earned a degree or transferred (Moore & Schulock, 2010).  Among Latinos and African Americans, completion rates are even lower with less than twenty-percent and twenty-five percent respectively transferring or receiving a certificate or degree.  The low transfer rate is troubling.

            While transfer rates remain low, the need for education beyond a high school diploma continues to increase.  A report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (2010) projects that sixty-percent of jobs in America will require at least some college, forty-five percent of which will require at least an associate’s degree. 

There is significant pressure on community colleges to provide technical skills training (certificates), prepare students to transfer to four-year institutions, enable students to achieve AA degrees all while serving the community. It is a near impossible task with limited resources. It is difficult enough to do one thing really well, but community colleges are asked to serve many purposes. Perhaps rather than decry the failures of community colleges to get more students to four-year institutions, we should applaud what they can achieve with the challenges they face. Furthermore, the assumption is that community colleges are failing (and in some ways they are) rather than that not all students will choose to go down the path to a four-year institution no matter what community colleges or others do.

It’s testing season, again.

Spring is here which means that the annual standardized testing season is upon us. Many students have not been a physical classroom in more than a year, and yet the powers that be at all level are “debating” whether they should bring kids in to test them. While standardized tests can certainly reveal a lot about the effectiveness of distance learning, perhaps the needs of students should surpass that of the research.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind as the new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, annual standardized testing in the United States but with new measures to make it less punitive. Schools are no longer required to make “annual yearly progress” and teacher evaluations are not directly tied to student test outcomes, at least from the federal level. As of 2019 thirty-four states require student growth outcomes as part of teacher evaluations. In eight of those states, student growth is not required to be measured by standardized tests. So, for a good percentage of schools, the assumption is that the tests are necessary to keep business as normal. But of course, it hasn’t been business as normal for a year.

While many schools are likely to be open by May, do we want to waste the remaining precious time in the school year on having them sit through standardized testing? It has been a brutal year plus on these children in terms of education. Districts are already developing plans for students to come to in-person summer school. So, if districts are assuming there needs to be more in-person learning, why not let students re-connect with each other and the fun of learning in the weeks they have left in class. The fact that standardized testing is even up for debate tells me that the powers that be: don’t really think about what students need and that the testing lobby is as powerful as ever. But then again, it isn’t as if I didn’t already know this.