SHEN & HAMILTON: What Schools Can Do To Save Kids’ LivesNovember 1, 2022
The Star-Ledger Questions Newark Superintendent’s Leadership. It’s Bigger Than That.November 2, 2022
Who knew New Jersey was an educational trend-setter?
Yesterday Jay Mathews at the Washington Post described how pandemic accommodations that eased school district attendance and grading policies have become permanent fixtures. These changes—for instance, barring teachers from giving a student a grade lower than 50%–are made with good intentions, part of what Mathews calls a “national effort to foster equity.” But they have had unintended consequences:
Brian Donlon, a social studies teacher in Montgomery County, said, “I have kids who have barely come to class and turned nothing in but have 50 percent. [The rule] is one piece of the larger puzzle, to inflate grades and graduation rates so school system leaders can claim success.”
Claiming success regardless of student proficiency is not new to New Jersey. Here it is a component of deliberate plans that fall under the banner of social justice and why in 2019 Murphy’s Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet told the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee that in his previous districts he barred teachers from giving students any grade lower than a 64. He explained to the Committee, teachers “weaponize grades” to punish Black and Brown students “in certain communities” so the Floor becomes a kind of protection against, I suppose, racist teachers. (Not sure how NJEA feels about this.) The 64 Floor leads to “a fairer system…I instituted a Floor because it needed to be equitable across the board.”
It’s a song as old as time: Do we help underserved students by lowering standards (like for children with intellectual disabilities–I’m allowed to say this because I have a kid who is part of that cohort) or by providing underserved students with additional support to meet high standards, including culturally-relevant and responsive pedagogy for African-American students? The Murphy Administration voted for the former.
And then came the pandemic, giving grown-ups in the room both a reason and an excuse to lower standards for attendance, homework, papers, whatever. Last week’s release of test data from the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) gave those grown-ups their own report card, showing how a combination of societal disruption, school closures, remote learning, illness, trauma, et. al. has led to the largest drops in student proficiency in the last 30 years.
So now what do we do?
Commentators are divided. AFT President Randi Weingarten tweeted on the day of the NAEP release,
— Randi Weingarten 🇺🇦🇺🇸💪🏿👩🎓 (@rweingarten) October 24, 2022
Former Mississippi Superintendent Carey Wright, whose state showed one of the few bright spots with students actually increasing proficiency since 2019, counseled,
CFC member and former @MissDeptEd Superintendent Carey Wright spoke on a panel with other K-12 experts about how educators should respond to the historic decline in student performance on the @NAEP_NCES #NAEP. https://t.co/klAzx6ruRe pic.twitter.com/QUWmBh5ZUm
— Chiefs for Change (@chiefsforchange) October 27, 2022
I think San Francisco is instructive. The district, which serves 50,000 students, released data today showing a stunning increase in chronic absenteeism since the pandemic school closures. At some schools almost 90% of students miss more than 10% of school days and there are no consequences: a district oversight tool called the Student Attendance Review Board was deactivated during school closures and remains inactive.
For those of us with short memories, San Francisco Public Schools District was much in the news because, while schools remained closed, the School Board spent their time renaming school buildings that had saluted racially-questionable figures in history like, um, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. (Those school board members were recalled in special election by voters.)
Are our children best served by lower standards and social justice virtue-signaling? Or by effective interventions that address their learning losses? What is the truly “progressive” approach?
I know what I’d vote for.