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Stagnant achievement and a principal exodus: a look at recent headlines
I love a good TikTok reaction video. Here's my attempt at a written version.
The Times published “US Students’ Progress Stagnated Last School Year, Study Finds.” Briefly, the article focuses on this report published by NWEA, which shows that students made slower growth this past year in math and reading than similar students prior to the pandemic.
Despite billions of federal dollars spent to help make up for pandemic-related learning loss, progress in reading and math stalled over the past school year for elementary and middle-school students, according to a new national study released on Tuesday.
This lede suggests that the billions of federal dollars were wasted. I’m not sure we can conclude that just yet. And we already underinvest in public education (and many other public goods).
In fact, students in most grades showed slower than average growth in math and reading, when compared with students before the pandemic. That means learning gaps created during the pandemic are not closing — if anything, the gaps may be widening.
If true, this is certainly concerning. Keep in mind, though, that this is just one testing company’s internal data, though. And that we’re comparing students who experienced one of the most calamitous societal events in the last few decades to students who had never experienced such a catastrophe. Another thing to be cautious about here: the study is based on NWEA’s RIT scores. NWEA sells one of the most popular K-12 assessments, the MAP test. They use students’ RIT scores in drawing the conclusions above. What is a RIT score, you might be asking. Great question. There’s a whole section of their website dedicated to explaining it. I’m not suggesting the data isn't accurate, I’m just pointing out their financial stakes and the complexity of the raw data.
On average, students need the equivalent of an additional 4.5 months of instruction in math, and an extra four months in reading to catch up to the typical prepandemic student.
The focus on “months of schooling” isn’t helpful. We don’t have that much more time to carve out for learning, and even if we did, I’m fairly certain the law of diminishing/negative returns would kick in. I’ve worked in schools with extended school days — 7.30 - 5.00 — it’s miserable for teachers and students. Maybe less could be more?
The question for educators and federal officials is how to address the four-month gap. Few academic interventions — standard tutoring, summer school, smaller class sizes — are powerful enough by themselves.
A few years ago, I told my assistant superintendent that I wanted to carve out more time for interventions during the school day. “More interventions?” he asked. “Rob, 70% of the students are below proficient in reading. You need to address the root cause.” It was sobering — we weren’t going to intervene our way to success, and neither will we do so in this case. We need to rethink our standard approach to education, especially the narrow focus on reading and math scores. We’ve already narrowed the curriculum so much that reading and math blocks in elementary schools comprise nearly 80% of the instructional day. Most teachers are lucky to sneak in a few poorly-planned minutes of science and social studies instruction. I’m optimistic we can improve student outcomes with a more robust and expansive curriculum — along with many other fundamental changes to our system.
Recovery plans have varied widely across thousands of school districts in the United States, with little national accounting of how the money has been spent.
Yes, this is a major problem. I alluded to this in my post about the airline industry — we need to do a better job of coordinating across districts and implementing SOPs (standard operating procedures). Imagine if we had a standard procedure for responding to extended virtual learning. We’d focus our efforts on what works.
Research suggests that high-dosage tutoring — which pairs a trained tutor with one to four students, at least three times a week, for a full year — can produce gains equivalent to about four months of learning.
Yes, high-dosage tutoring can be helpful and we should consider more of it. And it’s also very costly and labor intensive — finding high-quality tutors isn’t easy, and there are only so many hours in the day to tutor students.
Above all, I worry that reports like this push education leaders and policy makers to focus on more of the same — a hyper-intensive and misguided focus on only math and reading instruction that crowds out other engaging learning opportunities for students. When the pandemic first struck and students were fully remote, there was so much talk about “this is an opportunity to reimagine our education system!” That seems to have evaporated, leaving behind a residue of the same old stuff: summer school, tutoring, and more math and reading instruction.
My hometown’s paper of record, The Inquirer, reported on a study by my alma mater, Penn State, that showed an increase in principals leaving their posts. Ironically, I’m likely included in the study’s dataset since I left my principalship last July. That job was easily the best, most challenging, and longest role I’ve ever held in education. Let’s analyze some quotes from the article.
…a stable principal’s office might matter even more to a school’s success, said Ed Fuller…Principals affect not just teacher turnover, but also school climate and student achievement, he noted.
This can’t be overstated. Principals have the ability to help teachers and students do their best, and schools that see excessive turnover struggle because there are few reasons to trust the leader will be there next year. It took years for me to convince my staff to trust me — and building trust is a journey, not a destination.
“The work was already difficult, but it’s intensified to such a degree that it becomes not worth it for a lot of people,” said Cooper, a veteran administrator [and president of a principals’ union] herself. “People are choosing their mental health, and when they can get out, they’re getting out.”
It’s difficult work, for sure, and the study doesn’t indicate why principals are leaving. My primary reason for leaving wasn’t my mental health — it was to further my education so I help principals and everyone they serve.
Principals at schools with highest concentration of students of color were more prone to leave their jobs than principals at more racially diverse schools, and charter school principals were more likely to depart than leaders of traditional public schools — there was a 32.8% attrition rate for charter school principals, and 13.2% for traditional public school principals.
Truly disheartening data points, and further evidence of inequities in our system. Charter school principals generally have fewer labor protections and, as a result, less job security.
To fix high principal attrition rates, Fuller said, districts and policymakers should increase principal salaries, provide incentives for those principals who take on hard-to-staff schools, and launch a statewide principal working conditions survey to better understand what makes principals leave — and stay — in Pennsylvania schools.
Money isn’t the answer. I’d start with improving principal supervision and the supports provided to schools by central offices. All the money in the world can’t make the work easier, and I think most principals would stay longer if they felt supported and had a better work/life balance.
We had a few run-ins with turbulence, but an otherwise safe flight to Seattle. Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend!