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Issues and Impact

Education news and trends.

Happy Schools Boost Achievement. Here’s Proof.

Most schools include a positive climate on their wish lists. But the No Child Left Behind era imposed a sort of “nice schools finish last” credo. Sure, a “happy” school would be nice, but...about those test scores.

School climate and student achievement should never compete, says Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social work and education at the University of Southern California.

With three colleagues, he combed through 78 studies—dating back to 2000—of U.S. and overseas school systems, and found substantial evidence that positive school climates contribute to academic achievement and can improve student outcomes—especially for students who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

This suggests that by nurturing a positive climate schools in low-income areas “have the potential to break the negative influences that stem from poor socioeconomic backgrounds and to mitigate risk factors that threaten academic achievement,” says co-author Ruth Berkowitz.

As a caveat, the researchers note that the absence of a clear and uniform definition of school climate poses an obstacle to more detailed analysis. Without it,  Astor says, “the ability of researchers and stakeholders to evaluate school climate growth over time is restricted.” 

Despite the inconsistencies, there are themes. Many educators, for example, instinctively tie school climate to school safety. But a positive climate can also depend upon how connected or engaged a student feels in school, the strength of relationships with school staff, and the state of parental involvement.

Schools’ varying needs, Astor says, mean climate improvement programs should be “tailor-made.”

Who Stands Between Unreliable News and Students? Educators.

There’s nothing new about teenagers (or adults for that matter) finding unreliable or just plain false information on the Internet, but false news—bogus or exaggerated information disguised as reliable “journalism” and funneled primarily through Facebook —went viral in 2016.

Because most fake news was generated in the hyperpartisan climate of the 2016 election, educators’ efforts to address the truth could be dicey, if students perceive that the purpose is to knock down a political stance or candidate.

But in Dave Stuart’s world history class at Michigan’s Cedar Springs High School, the conversation is always focused on larger questions of how students as news consumers reach conclusions, and how they can and should use evidence to support these conclusions.

“I would just redirect the discussion to questions about credibility without passing judgement,” Stuart explains. ”Is this source valid? Where is the evidence? Let them do the thinking.”

And not a moment too soon. A Stanford University survey says that regardless of their age or socioeconomic status, students find it hard to dismiss unreliable information.

For example, the overwhelming majority of middle schoolers believed “sponsored content” was a legitimate news story, and they couldn’t discern advertising from actual articles. When shown an image and caption that went viral on social media, high school students readily accepted the claim in the caption with no qualms about verification or attribution.

And digital technology skills are unrelated to their need for assistance with competently digesting information and reaching well-founded conclusions, Stuart says.

“Kids still need to read, write, think, and speak critically. That doesn’t come with
being a digital native.”

All teachers across the curriculum bear responsibility for instilling these skills, he adds, “A student’s ability to be more critical of the information they get online, to understand evidence, to identify inaccurate sources, affects practically every subject....This is a huge opportunity for all of us.”

Oui, Oui, Wisconsin

A state-by-state look at K–12 students who were enrolled in language courses other than English during the 2014–2015 school year.

Enrollment Percentages (no. of states)

30 – 52.9 (8)     21 – 29.9 (7)

17 – 20.9 (15)   13 – 16.9 (12)

Less than 13 (8)

Source: American Academy of Arts and Sciences

As Victories Mount, Ethnic Studies Advocates Flex Their Muscles

A bill that would have extended Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies and social justice to the state’s community colleges and universities failed in January, ending an attack on ethnic studies and academic freedom that faculty, students, and other advocates called “completely and utterly disgusting.” The bill also ran counter to prevailing trends around ethnic studies.

Introduced by Arizona state representative Bob Thorpe, the bill would have cut state funding for community colleges and public universities that teach courses, or host events and activities promoting “division, resentment, or social justice” toward another race, gender, religion, political affiliation, or social class.

This isn’t Arizona’s first foray into ethnic studies. In 2010, the state banned ethnic studies in K–12 public schools, taking aim at a popular, decade-old Mexican American studies program in Tucson. That law still faces a court challenge in federal appeals court, and ethnic and social-justice activists were galvanized by the attack.

In the wake of the Arizona ban, ethnic studies spread to Texas and California. In Texas, in 2015, the State Board of Education voted to include Mexican American studies as an elective in the state curriculum. By 2015, at least five California counties, including Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, required ethnic studies for high school graduation.

Then, in 2016, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law AB 2016, which requires the development of a model curriculum for ethnic studies in high schools to be offered in schools in 2020.

The law was hailed as a game-changer. University of Arizona professor Nolan Cabrera told the Huffington Post, “There’s a saying in education that ‘as California goes, so goes the rest of the country.’ And this is looking very promising not just for students in California, but for those in the rest of the country as this becomes a more accepted educational practice.”

Pisa 2015

U.S. Students Still in the Middle of the Pack

Students in the U.S. continue to perform about average in reading and science, but score lower than the average for similar industrialized countries in math, according to 2015 results for the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Overall, there was no statistically significant change in U.S. scores in science and reading compared to 2012, the last time PISA was administered. Indeed, over time, U.S. ranking in these subjects has remained consistent. In 2015, the U.S. average score in science was 496 (OECD average: 493) and 497 in reading (OECD average: 493). U.S. math scores, on the other hand, declined from a 2012 score of 481 to 470 in 2015, significantly lower than the OECD average of 490.

In 2015, Singapore outperformed the rest of the world in all three categories, followed by Japan, Estonia, Finland and Canada. Other nations and systems near the top of the rankings include Hong Kong, Korea, and New Zealand.

What do these perennially high-performing nations have in common? Plenty, says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García:

“They fully fund all of their schools, regardless of the ZIP code or community they are in. They value the collaboration between parents, educators, administrators, communities, and elected officials, they make the teaching profession attractive and they support their teachers.”

—Lily Eskelsen García

Teachers Spend $530 of Their Own Money to Help Students Succeed

When it comes to the top five funding priorities, teachers across school poverty levels are in general agreement, according to a recent Scholastic survey. Fifty-five percent say reduction of the student-to-teacher ratio is most important. The same percentage of teachers say that purchasing high-quality instructional materials and textbooks should be at the top of the list. Forty-seven percent say technology devices and digital resources are key, and 47 percent also point to the need for higher salaries. Forty-six percent point to the importance of academic and social-emotional intervention programs.

Like always, most educators are spending their own money on items for their students and classrooms. On average, teachers spent $530 in the past year. At high-poverty schools, teachers spent roughly $630. At low-poverty schools, that amount dips to $495. More than half of teachers (56 percent) use this money to buy books, but in high-poverty schools they are more likely to purchase food and snacks for students and cleaning supplies for their classrooms.

Types of Items Teachers Have Purchased for Classroom or Student Use

Source: scholastic

NEA Member’s Exploration Into Racism Wins National Book Award

In his recent National Book Award-winning book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, NEA Higher Ed member Ibram X. Kendi dives into the world of racist ideas. Recently, Kendi, an assistant professor at the University of Florida, talked with NEA Today about the evolution of racism in the U.S., how it continues to impact public education, and how educators can create anti-racist spaces.

This book challenges a common perception about racism, specifically that racist ideas propel racist policy. You say it’s the opposite—racist policies have propelled racist thinking. Can you explain that?

Ibram X. Kendi: That was something I certainly believed, going into the book, that racist ideas drive policy, and I didn’t think I was going to turn it on its head. That wasn’t my intent.... I wanted to write a history of racist ideas, a history of America, and show how the historical context produced these people, who produced these ideas. I found, over and again, that these producers were not ignorant. Many of them were the most brilliant minds in American history. And they typically were producing these ideas in defense of existing racist policies. The disparities were in place, their effects were profound, and these ideas were an attempt to normalize and justify those policies.

You describe three kinds of people: the segregationists, who are racists basically; the anti-racists, who actively reject any idea that Black people are inferior in any way; and the assimilationists. This group includes people like Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama. Can you describe them better?

IK: The reason I wrote a history of racist ideas, as opposed to a history of racists, was because I realized very early on that there are people who hold racist and anti-racist ideas. These are the assimilationists. You can simultaneously believe that the racial groups are biologically equal, that they were created equal, but that they have become behaviorally unequal [because of environment, poverty, etc.] Assimilationists will argue that Black people are capable of development, and they believe that this belief is progressive but it also is racist.

If you take this filter of segregationists, assimilationists, and anti-racists, and apply it to public education, who comes out on top? If we accept that assimilationists got the upper hand after Brown v. Board [the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case which declared state laws establishing separate public schools for Black and White students to be unconstitutional], are they still running the show?

IK: Yes. The effect of Brown vs. Board was basically to state that the reason Black schools are inferior is not because they are under-resourced, but because White students aren’t in them, and so what we need to do is usher Black students into schools with White students. That’s why you had busing in the 1970s and why you have racial reformers, ever since, thinking that the way to create a better school system would be to bring more Black students into White schools.

What can teachers, and their unions, do to make their classrooms, their schools, and their school systems more anti-racist?

IK: Instead of so many teacher activists who care about racial justice issues focusing on closing the achievement gap, I think we should focus on closing the school resource gap. There is certainly a problem with the amount of resources dedicated to certain schools. And while it certainly doesn’t result in those children being intellectually inferior, it does lead to a different type of education and a different type of intelligence, which is not a type of intelligence necessarily valued in our economy.

How about in their own classrooms? There are studies showing how educators’ racial biases affect school discipline rates among 4-year-olds even.

IK: Clearly one of the most dangerous racist ideas about Black people is that they have a behavioral problem, which manifests in schools and leads to children becoming criminals. Teachers need to see their Black students as complex individuals, and recognize their Black children’s lives in the same way that they recognize their White children’s lives. You try to understand them. You recognize them as individuals. You individualize your approach to each child to accommodate their interests, their culture, who they are. You become an expert on your students’ lives.

Teacher Stress and Health

Researchers at Penn State University found that a growing number of educators are affected by stress. Here are key findings from the report released in December 2016.

  • Forty-six percent of teachers report high daily stress, which compromises their health, sleep, quality of life, and teaching performance.
  • When teachers are highly stressed, students show lower levels of social adjustment and academic performance.
  • Interventions on the organizational or individual level, or those that reach both, can change the culture and approach to teaching.
  • Programs for mentoring, workplace wellness, social emotional learning, and mindfulness are all proven to improve teacher well-being and student outcomes.

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