July 7, 2023

John Thompson: For schools to come back from pandemic, facing reality matters

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John Thompson looks at a New Yorker piece that misses some critical insights in its examination of post-pandemic schooling.

When I started Alex MacGillis’ “The Pandemic Generation” in the New Yorker, I committed to an objective reading of his latest work. I acknowledge that his work a couple of years ago was the antithesis of my approach. I’m always suspicious of writers, no matter how smart they are, who push simple solutions for complex problems. And whether we’re contemplating school improvement or Covid issues, I try to avoid the blame game. And since I still believe the jury is out on school closures, I strongly believed I could approach MacGillis’ new work with an open mind.

However, I was stunned by his misstatement of an essential fact, his denigration of parents who disagreed with him, and how four of his five expert sources were true believers in corporate school reform. He drew upon accountability-driven researchers, ignoring a huge body of social and cognitive science that explained the flaws with their rapid, data-driven shortcuts.


In page one, MacGillis quotes the conservative Eric Hanushek, an economist committed to the failed outcomes-based accountability for teachers, using an unreliable and invalid “value added model” biased against teachers in high-challenge schools. Hanushek “presented findings demonstrating that the economic consequences of pandemic-related learning loss could be far greater than those of the Great Recession.” As I will discuss later, it previewed MacGillis’ advocacy of summer programs focused on the academic learning that supposedly improves test scores and economic outcomes in the quickest possible way.

Next, MacGillis briefly cited Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neurology, who “said it made sense for districts to rethink summer break,” but what he would recommend wasn’t mentioned. In “The Case for Summer Learning,” in the American Federation of Teachers magazine, however, Cooper explained that academic instruction programs should be combined with “a variety of enrichment offerings from community partners, including dance, theater, martial arts, swimming, woodworking, cooking, and kayaking.” Cooper added:

When students do not attend engaging and enriching summer programs, the summer months can result in losses in health and well-being, college and career opportunity, and the support needed to break cycles of intergenerational poverty and move young people and their families forward.

Surely MacGillis’ analysis of summer learning would have wiser if he had incorporated Cooper’s conclusions into his story.

The researcher who received the most attention was Tom Kane, who headed the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching project (MET). Even before the research was completed in 2013, it played a major role in expanding corporate reform mandates. And as Brian Stecher, the lead author of the RAND evaluation of MET explained:

The initiative itself tried to pull a bunch of levers to have a big impact on student performance. … but in the end, there were no big payoffs in terms of improved graduation [rates] or achievement of students in general, and low-income and minority students in particular.

Kane had recently helped lead a more balanced appraisal of the investments that needed to be made if the Covid learning loss is to be reversed, so I was shocked to read this factually inaccurate paragraph:

Across the nation, the two-thousands showed steady gains for students, as measured by such tests as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Notably, the achievement gap between Black and white students narrowed. “It’s useful to remind people that things before the pandemic were improving,” Thomas Kane, an economist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told me. “We had been making progress.”

But, the NAEP presentation of long-term scores showed stagnation or decline from 2013 to 2019! How can I prove that? I just clicked a link in Kane’s latest article and the actual results popped up!

The timing is crucial because the decline in student growth occurred as the MET hypothesis about teacher evaluations drove expensive federal mandates for evaluating teachers, using flawed test scores, and an algorithm that was inappropriate for evaluating individual’s effectiveness. As these hurried, test and punish mandates were fully implemented, prioritizing teach-to-the-test malpractice, student outcomes declined.

The title of Kane’s New York Times opinion piece on his latest research was titled “Parents Don’t Understand How Far Behind Their Kids Are in School.” And that leads to two other experts cited by MacGillis who have continued with the blame game. Both McGillis and Kane’s recent work cite Marguerite Roza, a spokesperson for data-driven solutions to counter the “low expectations” and “excuses” by teachers who she claimed are the cause of the achievement gap. Now, she blames the “urgency gap,” and how “people have simply grown inured to talk of underachieving schools. ‘The system has always had some kids failing, and now we have more,” she said. “There’s maybe a numbness to it.’”

Similarly, the last expert he cited was the data-driven researcher Dan Goldhaber, who said:

There’s a real urgency gap. … It’s asymmetry between what we can see empirically about where kids are and what parents think, based on opinion surveys. There’s the belief that kids are doing O.K., and the desire to snap back to normal.

When recounting efforts led by the Richmond principal, Jason Kamras, a sincere but frustrated former Teach for America teacher, MacGillis and Kane provide valid insights into why “There may not be any better time than now to rip the Band-Aid off,” to extend the school year and impose a new year-long calendar. It would “logistically easier” draw on the same teachers in the same building.

But, it seems to me that even though I’ve previously advocated for a longer calendar to counter summer learning loss, this is likely the wrong time to impose that rapid, transformational change. The parents and teachers who opposed the plan argued that families and educators have been traumatized and exhausted. Funding might not be available to institutionalize the reforms. And, the shortage of teachers is likely to get worse. If, as I do, you believe in the new calendar and an increased school year, the last thing you would want to do would be to ram it through over the objections of so many constituencies.

I went through the experience of listening and learning from Johns Hopkins experts, and community partners who agreed that the answer is not remediation but holistic investments that offer poor children of color the same respect and meaningful opportunities as more affluent kids. I believe our district administrators also agreed. But when the full reward-and-punish agenda that was pushed by Kane, Roza, and the “Billionaires Boys Club” became the law, the plug was pulled on our humane approach, and remediation became the focus.

So, both sides of the Richmond school battle are correct in arguing that it’s not enough to return schools to the pre-pandemic normal. But, we first need open-minded discussions about the principles that should drive change. Does it make sense to focus primarily on more classroom instruction to improve supposedly quantifiable outcomes, or should we increase our focus on mental health? Do we want to concentrate on classroom teaching, or do we want to make learning a team effort? And even if a chosen program is the best option, will it work if its architects fail to listen respectfully to parents and educators who see things differently?

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