Just News from Center X is a free weekly news blast about equitable public education. Please share and encourage colleagues and friends to subscribe.
Teaching, Leading, and Social Justice
Natasha Singer, New York Times
As exposure to the coronavirus forced thousands of teachers across the United States to stay home and quarantine this winter, administrators in the Washoe County School District, which serves 62,000 students in western Nevada, pulled out all the stops to try to continue in-person instruction for students. They exhausted the district’s regular supply of substitute instructors. They asked teachers to use their planning periods to cover classes for quarantining colleagues. Some schools tapped principals, librarians, guidance counselors and other staff members to teach classes or monitor lunch and recess. The superintendent even filled in for an absent teacher. “We had to embrace an all-hands-on-deck mind-set to keep schools open,” said Joe Ernst, an area superintendent who oversees 24 Washoe County schools. But by late November, the virus had forced so many teachers to stay home that the district was unable to cover some 2,000 requests for substitutes. Soon after, the district halted in-person instruction, shifting all middle and high schools to remote learning until this week. Washoe County’s struggles typify the battle that many schools are waging to continue in-person instruction. Across the country, state education and district officials say the pandemic has intensified a longstanding teacher shortage to crisis levels.
Ricardo Cano, Cal Matters
In his bid to get California school campuses back open, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed giving extra money to schools that managed to open by a certain date. But the $2 billion in grant money would come attached with strings that some districts say would mean paying more than if they didn’t get the money in the first place. That’s because Newsom’s proposal— and new state guidance, the first since last summer— calls for vastly increased testing of school staff and students, which the schools would have to pay for. The governor’s “Safe Schools for All Plan,” first released Dec. 30, aims to incentivize schools to offer in-person learning by offering between $450 and $700 in per-pupil grant funding if the schools reopen for their youngest students by Feb. 16. In order to receive extra state funding, districts would have to test staff and students for coronavirus periodically, according to trailer bill language. The frequency of the testing would depend on which of the state’s four color-coded reopening tiers the schools reside in.
Marjorie Orellana, Priscilla Liu & Sophia Angeles [blog post]
The COVID-19 pandemic, with all the suffering and challenges it has brought, offers us all a tremendous opportunity to see our social worlds and to re-imagine them. In this blog we suggest a few lessons that we have learned from our research exploring the impact of the pandemic on the lives and learning experiences in a diverse set of 33 U.S. households, and offer suggestions for schools. Three lessons: 1. Social processes and practices can change very quickly, and do, when circumstances force them. The rapidity with which we collectively moved our lives (and schooling) online and rearranged our social lives is really quite astounding. For sure, it wasn’t without upheaval, dissension, discord, and uneven-ness– partly because of the mixed messages we got from our leadership. And the changes may be more in form than in substance. But we did make certain kinds of changes very fast– changes that might have seemed impossible a year ago.
Language, Culture, and Power
Kevin Carey, New York Times
When Miguel Cardona was 5, he started kindergarten in public school. His parents had moved from Puerto Rico to Meriden, Conn., where he was born. His father worked as a city police officer, and his family lived in public housing. They spoke Spanish at home. When Miguel began school, English was something of a mystery. He was, in the term educators use today, an English learner. Last month, President-elect Biden announced his intention to make Mr. Cardona the Secretary of Education, replacing Betsy DeVos. If confirmed, he could play a role in puncturing the conventional wisdom that has cast English learners as weighed down by shortcomings— as a problem that must be solved quickly. He would be responsible for a vast and varied system of schools and colleges that has changed in many ways since he first enrolled 40 years ago. Academic standards are tougher, testing is more prevalent, and economic inequality has widened. And there are a large and growing number of students who speak a language other than English at home, just as he once did.
Maurizio Guerrero, In These Times
One initiative stood out as especially (and cruelly) effective in President Donald Trump’s often inept White House: his administration’s monomaniacal attack on immigrants. Starting with an unconstitutional Muslim ban his first week in office, Trump signed more than 400 executive actions against migrants in a single term— curtailing legal immigration, casting out tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers, separating undocumented families and sowing terror in immigrant communities. Trump’s caging of migrant children at the border sparked nationwide protests in 2018 under the banner “Keep Families Together.” But despite mass outrage among liberals, the enormous bipartisan machine built to surveil, catch and imprison migrants predates Trump. While separating children from their parents at the border was a cruel Trumpian twist, the U.S. immigration system has long torn apart families through deportation. The current iteration of that system, which criminalizes migrants for making mistakes once considered paperwork errors, took three decades to construct before Trump arrived.
Caroline Bauman & Gabrielle Birkner, Chalkbeat
As Kamala Harris becomes the first woman, the first African American, and the first person of South Asian descent to become U.S. vice president, many girls of color will be celebrating the multiple historic barriers coming down with a single oath. In the days leading up to the inauguration of Joe Biden and Harris, Chalkbeat spoke with Black, brown, and Asian teenagers about the significance of this moment. They discussed the importance of having elected officials who look like them, wondered why it took so long to get here, and told us how they plan to hold the new administration accountable. These young women also shared their wide-ranging policy priorities, including COVID relief, combating climate change, increasing the minimum wage, and defunding the police. Their stories are interspersed with poetry by younger girls, and a performance of “Represent” by 16-year-old spoken-word artist Ife Martin of Detroit. “Do you feel that?” she asks. “The roar of change rumbling under our feet, under our All Star Chucks and church shoes. It’s hard to find but long overdue.”
Whole Children and Strong Communities
Maxine McKinney de Royston & Shirin Vossoughi, Truthout
Nationally, COVID-19 is further exposing deep racial and economic inequities and long-ignored educational crises: the school-prison nexus, underfunding, and narrow, test-centric curriculum and teaching. Amid an unethical push to reopen schools, our approaches to learning continue to blame students, families, teachers, school leaders and staff for failed policies, and jeopardize everyone’s well-being. While the pandemic has presented cataclysmic challenges, our educational system has also responded in ways that exacerbate many of the same racial, economic and gender injustices that have always plagued it. Given this reality, calls to return to “normal,” even after a vaccine, are regressive. Our focus should be on systemic change. This requires prioritizing parents/caregivers, communities of color and educators as full partners and leaders in deciding what that change will look like and moving beyond top-down reforms that reproduce the inequities they were meant to address. Systemic change also requires questioning harmful beliefs about how young people learn and grow.
Javeria Salman, Hechinger Report
Last March when teachers and students transitioned to remote instruction, Iraqi instructor Mohammad Hameed and his students in the Arbat Refugee Camp in the Iraqi Kurdistan region weren’t caught off guard. While the pandemic and the sudden shutdown of schools provoked fear, the teachers at this remote refugee camp in northern Iraq weren’t worried about how students would cope: They were confident their students were prepared to take their learning fully online. They didn’t have a high-tech classroom with fancy equipment— in fact most students didn’t even have laptops or access to the internet. They had something more important: basic digital literacy. Hameed’s students are participants in various programs through Hello Future, a nonprofit organization that works with teen refugees to bridge the education gap by teaching digital and financial literacy, critical thinking and entrepreneurship. The students at the Arbat camp are Syrian refugees who fled that country’s civil war. With limited education opportunities available inside the camp for the 13-18 age group, Hello Future saw a gap that could be bridged through media and digital literacy, the ability to find, create and share content online.
Kate Mraw, Ed Source
Schools have played a key role in providing resources and support to families beyond the needs of students since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. But what if we took that one step further and developed schools as community centers, providing resources and support to neighborhood families from food to wellness checks? Last May, a survey of education leaders conducted by our in-house research team found 85% of district administrators were most concerned about community health and wellness as they returned to school. Asked to rank their top concerns, health and sanitation was No. 1, followed by pedagogy and facility use (7.7%) and finance and operations (7.7%). Once one begins exploring that idea, more possibilities emerge.
What if we incorporate wellness centers and clinics into more campuses? What about support spaces for parents? Are there ways to share learning and sports facilities to make the most of community resources and build a culture of health and wellness? It makes sense to explore opportunities to co-locate on campus services such as libraries and health services, which can serve the greater community.
Access, Assessment, Advancement
American Indian College Fund
Early childhood education can help close the college education attainment gap among American Indians and Alaska Natives—which is currently less than half of other groups at 14.8%—by improving students’ academic achievement, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Thanks to a two-year, $600,000 grant from The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the American Indian College Fund will help tribal college communities strengthen and expand the pipeline for Native teachers through its Indigenous Early Childhood Education Systemic Engagement and ECE Learning in Native American Communities program. Native teachers serve as critical role models engendering the success of young Native American students, while understanding the unique needs of their students. In addition to improving young children’s long-term educational attainment, early childhood education can also reduce the need for special education and increase employment and earnings, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Melissa Gomez, Los Angeles Times
California’s top education officials are struggling with how — or even if — millions of students should take annual standardized tests at home amid ongoing school closures and the hardships of surging COVID-19 rates. Although members of the state Board of Education voted to move forward this week with complex standardized testing plans, a majority of members said at their Wednesday meeting that they support seeking a federal waiver to skip testing for a second consecutive year because of the many complications, stresses on children and families, security challenges and even the inability of many students to take the test online at home. “I don’t want to overstate this— but I sort of feel this way— that it would be education malpractice to require [local school agencies] to provide results of assessments that really are seriously in jeopardy of being valid as we go forward,” said board member Sue Burr, who favors focusing on easing the test burden during the pandemic. Yet the state’s top education leaders also agree that gathering test data is critical to accurately measuring the extent of learning loss among students during pandemic-forced distance learning, which has disproportionately failed low-income Black and Latino students, those with special needs and students in rural districts.
Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed
The College Board on Tuesday announced that it is killing the SAT Subject Tests and the SAT essay. Most experts said the College Board had little choice but to make the changes. The board also announced plans to create “a more flexible SAT– a streamlined, digitally delivered test that meets the evolving needs of students and higher education.” But the board did not release additional details on the new SAT. The changes come as the pandemic has created huge problems for the College Board and its competitor in admissions testing, ACT. In October, 154,000 students who signed up to take the SAT were unable to do so because of test center closures. In December, 124,000 students were unable to take the SAT because of pandemic-related facility closures. With so many students kept from the tests, the vast majority of colleges have either gone test optional or test blind, meaning they will not even look at an SAT or ACT score when deciding whether to admit a student. The College Board linked its problems finding places to test to eliminating the SAT Subject Tests. It said it would be “locating seats that would have gone to students taking Subject Tests to students who want to take the SAT.”
Inequality, Poverty, Segregation
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic
I’ve been thinking about Barbara Tuchman’s medieval history, A Distant Mirror, over the past couple of weeks. The book is a masterful work of anti-romance, a cold-eyed look at how generations of aristocrats and royalty waged one of the longest wars in recorded history, all while claiming the mantle of a benevolent God. The disabusing begins early. In the introduction, Tuchman examines the ideal of chivalry and finds, beneath the poetry and codes of honor, little more than myth and delusion. Knights “were supposed, in theory, to serve as defenders of the Faith, upholders of justice, champions of the oppressed,” Tuchman writes. “In practice, they were themselves the oppressors, and by the 14th century, the violence and lawlessness of men of the sword had become a major agency of disorder.” The chasm between professed ideal and actual practice is not surprising. No one wants to believe themselves to be the villain of history, and when you have enough power, you can hold reality at bay.
Andrew Ujifusa, Education Week
President Joe Biden moved to “preserve and fortify” executive action that shields certain undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as young children, said in an executive order that laws that prohibit sex discrimination also prohibit discrimination against gender identity, and in another executive order initiated a government-wide push to emphasize racial equity on his first day as president. Biden also revoked an executive order from outgoing President Donald Trump that created a commission to promote “patriotic education” in schools and elsewhere. That group, the 1776 Commission released a report Monday that lamented what it called the role of identity politics and the progressive movement in historical studies; it was criticized by many historians for how it treated slavery and other elements of American history.Biden took these and several other executive actions Wednesday, when he was inaugurated as the nation’s 46th president. For months, Biden has pledged to reverse Trump administration actions on a variety of fronts, including on hot-button education issues. Wednesday’s raft of executive orders accomplished that goal, and also demonstrated his administration’s early priorities. “These actions are bold, begin the work of following through on President-elect Biden’s promises to the American people, and, importantly, fall within the constitutional role for the president,” Biden’s transition team said in a statement Wednesday.
IDB-UNESCO: Gaps in education systems will be exacerbated if education is not prioritized within pandemic response plans
A report issued by the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB) and the Regional Bureau for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (OREALC/UNESCO Santiago) warns of the unequal access to human and economic resources, infrastructure and educational equipment in the region, which have been aggravated by the pandemic. These structural conditions affect the implementation of the recommendations issued by international organizations on the appropriate processes for school reopenings, and impact upon the right to education of millions of students in the region. “The region has an urgent need to plan and define priority actions to guarantee the safety of school operations and educational attention to the most vulnerable populations.” This is the conclusion of the IDB and UNESCO report “Reopening Schools in Latin America and the Caribbean: Keys, challenges and dilemmas to plan for a safe return to in-person classes.”
Democracy and the Public Interest
Masha Gessen, The New Yorker
Among the firsts in Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” is the concept of democracy that it assumed. Democracy, according to the twenty-two-year-old poet, is an aspiration— a thing of the future. The word “democracy” first appears in the same verse in which Gorman refers to “a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it.” The insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th took place while Gorman was working on the poem, although the “force,” one may assume, is bigger than the insurrection— it is the Trump Presidency that made the insurrection possible, and the forces of white supremacy and inequality that enabled that Presidency itself— “it / Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy / And this effort very nearly succeeded” the poem continues. “But while democracy can be periodically delayed / it can never be permanently defeated.”
Student Nation, The Nation
Today, we might be breathing a collective sigh of relief—but the work has only begun. President Joe Biden faces a wildly daunting first 100 days in office. On the heels of major vaccine developments, Biden committed to getting “at least 100 million Covid-19 vaccine shots into the arms of the American people in the first 100 days.” Beyond this obviously critical effort, there is only so much the new administration can focus on in his first three months. We asked students across the country what they see as the most pressing issue the Biden White House should devote its time and political capital to addressing. We received a wide range of responses, taking in a number of pressing issues affecting young people today.
Nicole Mirra & Antero Garcia, Education Week
Amid the calls for civic education that have followed the insurrectionist mob violence incited by President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol, his President’s Advisory 1776 Commission has released a report calling for a “restoration” of civics that in effect sanitizes and whitewashes this country’s history in the name of national unity. Yet the vision of civics put forth by this report— a collection of historical half-truths and blindly patriotic propaganda— is a better fit for a dictatorship than for a democracy. Lurking behind its stated goal of wholesome national pride are calculated attacks on any historians and educators that dare to complicate and expand the story of this country. We do not need this restoration of American civic education. We need a total reconstruction. The 1776 commission report seems to emerge from an alternate universe in which Americans are not watching National Guard troops sleeping in a militarized Capitol or worrying that an “insider attack” will mar this week’s inauguration of Joe Biden.
Other News of Note
Norman Stockwell, The Progressive
The deaths, on the same day this past July, of the Reverend C.T. Vivian and U.S. Representative John Lewis remind us that many of the leaders of past struggles for civil rights are passing away, just as a new generation of activists are reinvigorating these movements. Two new books bring this alive in a powerful and accessible way. In W.E.B. Du Bois: The Lost and the Found, a new monograph for the Polity series “Black Lives,” Elvira Basevich, a poet and assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, puts the early twentieth-century writing of Du Bois in the context of twenty-first-century anti-racist work. Sociologist and civil rights activist William Edward Burghardt Du Bois published his classic work, The Souls of Black Folk, more than a century ago. In a combination of analysis, storytelling, autobiography, and gospel song, Du Bois sought to address what he saw as the crucial issue of the time: “the color line.”