I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

How To Stop Magical Thinking In School Reopening Plans

In the past few weeks, a new literary genre has emerged in America's media outlets: the school reopening op-ed. Almost always written by someone who has little to no experience in actually working in a school, these op-eds tend to follow the same form:
  1. Why it's so important to reopen schools. 
  2. Evidence in support of the idea that COVID-19 prevalence is low in children, as is transmission attributable to children.
  3. Grudging admission that adults work in schools and this may be a problem.
  4. Finger-wagging at said adults, telling them that life is full of risk and they shouldn't indulge in fear mongering. 
  5. A set of ideas to reopen schools. Many times, the tone of the presentation suggests the author believes no one who leads or works in schools actually could have thought of any of their plans before they did.
  6. An optimistic call for "creativity" in school reopening plans.
It's always interesting to look at the comments section following these pieces, or to see them debated on Twitter. Skeptics -- often actual educators, but also parents, students, and other stakeholders -- will point out many factors that the authors did not address in their op-ed that make it difficult, if not impossible, to implement their ideas.

Given the severity of this pandemic and the importance of reopening schools, it is not at all appropriate to dismiss these objections out of hand. If some of the most prominent spaces in the media are being reserved for "experts" to offer their ideas for school reopening, the least they should have to endure is a thorough critique of their ideas from the people who will be the most affected by them. 

A serious assessment of school reopening plans isn't simply negative thinking; it's a brake on magical thinking. It's an acknowledgement that yes, we do have to get schools reopened as quickly as possible, but we must do so in a way that respects the safety of students and educators. Setting policies for school reopening isn't an intellectual exercise; it's serious business that literally puts people's lives at risk. We must think carefully about the proposals that are being floated before we decide to use them and go back to school.

To that end, I offer here a framework for assessing the viability of school reopening policies. If you really believe you have figured out how to get schools up and running again, you shouldn't mind having to answer these questions:

- Is your plan practical? One popular idea out now is to repurpose spaces that are currently empty and reuse them for instruction; that way, we can reduce class sizes and/or spread students out so they can maintain distancing guidelines. On the surface, it seems like a good idea, until you begin to ask questions like...

Are these spaces secure? Can teachers monitor students in them? Do they have adequate bathroom facilities? Are they accessible to disabled children and staff? Will the property owners be liable for student/staff injuries? If not, how will they be protected? How will we transport students to these spaces? What supplies and equipment are needed so instruction can be delivered? Will those be transported from schools? Will we have to get more? Will they be secure after hours? What emergency response plans are needed in the new facility? Will the facilitates be used after school hours? If so, what precautions will be taken to clean them? 

Questions like these aren't negative thinking, and they aren't nit-picking. They are the everyday work of educators; they are the same questions school leaders and teachers ask constantly when working within their own buildings. People who propose repurposing buildings, or any other school reopening policy, should not be allowed dismiss them.

- Can your plan be brought to scale? Another popular idea is moving classes outside, as it's generally believed the virus does not fare well in the open air. To shelter students and staff, proponents suggest we set up tents, which would offer some protection from the elements.

Again, we have to ask whether, and to what extent, this is practical: who's setting up the tents? Do schools have enough level, accessible space to set them up? How are we moving and securing furniture and supplies? What happens when it gets really cold/hot? And so on...

But even if we could address all of these concerns, what would it take to set up an adequate number of outdoor spaces with shelters across the US? There are nearly 100,000 K-12 public schools in America, enrolling more than 50 million students. Let's be extremely conservative and say we need one large tent for every 25 students; that's about 2 million tents.

Do we have the capacity to procure these shelters, set them up, maintain them in all kinds of weather, secure them when not being used, and store them when needed?

Yes, it's conceivable that we wouldn't need so many. But unless you can tell me how many we need, you're making my point: you haven't thought this all the way through. Any viable reopening plan must consider the scale on which it operates.

- Is your plan affordable? It's generally agreed that adequate air exchange is necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19. Some op-ed writers have suggested that we need to invest in air purifiers and HVAC upgrades to make classrooms more safe. You'll certainly get no argument from me... but where are we going to get the money?

Even before the pandemic -- and this is just an estimate, the problem could be much worse -- around 40 percent of US school districts needed to upgrade or replace the HVAC systems on at least half of their schools. Which means simply buying better air filters and installing them in current systems isn't going to solve the problem. 

In the op-ed above, the authors suggests getting portable air purifiers for every classroom. They way lowball the estimate of how many we'd need -- but even their estimated number is, they admit, greater than the entire annual production of purifiers for the United States. But let's say their conservative estimate of $1 billion is correct; again, where is the money going to come from?

This country has been living penny-wise and pound-foolish for years when it comes to its school facilities. Upgrading them to acceptable standards in a pandemic is going to cost a lot of money. If you propose a school reopening plan, you have an obligation to explain how you're going to fund it.

- Is your plan developmentally appropriate for children? I taught primary school children for decades, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that they cannot and will not wear masks for seven or more hours a day, even with breaks. I can also tell you they will not adhere to social distancing guidelines without constant intervention. That is just the way it is.

I've also taught adolescents. Many of them (like many adults in the US) believe in their own invincibility and will downplay the risks of transmitting the virus to others. Yet some of the best evidence we have on COVID-19 suggests teenagers transmit the virus just as well as adults.

We can't assume that children -- even older children -- will follow all the protocols we expect from adults to stop viral transmission. Because they're children. 

- Does your plan make unreasonable demands on educators? Because of the South Korea study and other evidence, some have begun floating the idea of reopening elementary schools, but keeping secondary schools closed. I think there's merit in this (and I say this as an elementary schoolteacher). But asking some teachers to take a risk with their lives while others do not without making big changes in work conditions is unreasonable.

Take personal protective equipment (PPE). If a school district is going to demand an elementary teacher show up to work, but not provide adequate PPE, that's simply unfair. And the PPE should be protective of the teachers, not just the students. Cloth masks may keep teachers from spreading the virus, but N95s and surgical masks are better at keeping them from getting it. Where, then, is the plan to provide these better masks to teachers who are forced to come to school?

It's also unreasonable to ask a teacher to develop two sets of instructional plans: one for students whose families opt to go fully on-line, and another for students who come to school in person. These are not the same modes of instruction; delivering them both requires considerably more preparation. How will schools deal with this?

And will teachers who contract COVID-19 at school have to drain their sick day banks during their recovery? How is that fair to a teacher who was forced to show up at school while a colleague under the same collective bargaining agreement was not?

Again, I'm not dismissing the idea of opening only elementary schools out of hand. But the teachers who are subject to working with students in person deserve much more than facile assurances that they will be protected, and their workload will remain manageable. 

- Are the examples you use to support your plan relevant? Pundits who support reopening schools often cite other countries' experiences as evidence that we can reopen schools safely. At this point, I will dismiss anyone's argument outright if they talk about Scandinavian countries but neglect to mention South Korea, Israel, or others places that have had problems with reopening schools.

In addition: any comparison to the United States must account for differences in how schooling is delivered in different countries. There is evidence, for example, that elementary students in the US spend more time in school than in other countries (admittedly, it's difficult to make these comparisons). Certainly, the case rates outside of school are vastly different in countries that have reopened school "successfully."

Education varies widely across different countries, as does the scope of the pandemic; therefore, the lessons learned from them are, at best, limited when applied to the United States. If you're going to tell us your school reopening plan will work because another nation did the same thing, you have an obligation to acknowledge the differences between that country and ours.

- Will your plan work given the current state of American politics? We have to face a few uncomfortable truths in the United States: there isn't going to be a lot of additional money available for school reopening, schools are going to take a huge fiscal hit regardless, COVID-19 prevention has become hopelessly politicized, and many Americans have been duped into thinking the pandemic is a hoax.

It's clear we need more resources to operate schools safely in a pandemic. It's clear people should be wearing masks and social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus. But what happens to all these carefully laid plans for school reopening when politicians refuse to fund them, and some parents and students refuse to follow them? Are the authors of these plans prepared to abandon them if it becomes clear they cannot be implemented in the current political environment?  

- Does your plan address class and race inequities? This pandemic has exposed -- or rather, further exposed -- some hard realities about inequity in America. Some people have jobs that allow them to work from home; some don't. Some parents can get paid time off to care for their sick child; some can't. Some communities can raise enough local funds to retrofit their HVAC systems or expand transportation so students can socially distance; some can't.

It makes sense to declare that symptomatic children shouldn't be admitted to school during a pandemic. But what do we say to a parent who works a job with no paid leave for time off to care for an ill child?

If you propose a school reopening idea, you should have to acknowledge how that idea may be subject to limits because of systemic inequities. And you should demand those inequities be addressed.

- Can your plan be implemented in time to reopen school? Many agree that having more personnel in schools would help; we could potentially cut down class sizes, have more personnel available in case staff fall ill, excuse staff who are medically at risk, etc. Some say we should be tapping retirees or recent graduates to work in schools. I think, given the pay for current teachers and substitutes, and the risk now involved, that the availability of suitable workers is highly overstated.

But let's suppose it's not; what then? School starts in a few weeks. Can we really recruit, conduct background checks on, train, and deploy these folks by then? Will we have the necessary administration in place to properly oversee an influx of new staff? Will we have enough PPE to protect them? Will they be subject to current bargaining agreements? Will they receive health insurance? And, as always: where's the money?

It would be nice to believe that somehow we could snap our fingers and reopening plans -- even ones that are feasible -- will be implemented at warp speed. But that's not how actual life works. This stuff takes time -- and we are woefully short on it. If your school reopening plan doesn't come with a reasonable timetable, it's not useful.

- Have you clearly defined the alternative to your plan, and is it actually worse than what you propose? No one likes on-line learning. But no one is going to like in-person schooling under a pandemic. I've seen enough first days of Kindergarten to know school can already be intimidating to a young child, let alone an awkward teen. Now let's add masks, and social distancing, and limited activities, and potential classes in the freezing cold or blazing heat. Let's take away choir and sports and lunchrooms with friends. Let's include a higher risk of beloved teachers and staff succumbing to COVID-19.

Let's also take a moment to acknowledge that  schools were building the plane as they were flying it this past spring. On-line learning will never be as good as in-person learning without a pandemic -- but that doesn't mean we couldn't improve it greatly, and in a relatively short time. Personally, I can honestly say I got much better at teaching remotely the more I did it.

The question before us now is not whether in-person schooling before the pandemic is better than remote learning was this spring: that answer is obvious. The question is whether in-person schooling this fall -- not an idealized version, but what it will actually be -- is better than what remote learning will be. And if it is better, will it be by much? And is that worth the risk?

I can only speak for myself: I am not yet ready to abandon the idea that we can go back to school safely this year. I think it's going to take a lot of work and more resources than we're currently talking about at the national level. I also think we are going to be very hard pressed to make this work by Labor Day. But if we can get the virus under control outside of school, get together the necessary resources, and make an honest assessment of the risks and rewards... OK.

But we're not going to get that honest assessment unless and until we stop thinking that magical plans will allow us to reopen schools in a few weeks. I know this will come as a shock to many pundits, but people who actually work in schools have almost certainly already thought of your "creative" solution to the problem. The likely reason they aren't implementing it is because they don't have the luxury of not questioning the very real issues you didn't address in your op-ed.

If that sounds harsh, I'm sorry -- but lives are literally at stake. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

A Response To Critics Of My Research On NJ Teachers

Earlier this week, the Sunshine Sunlight Policy Center put out a critique of my report, published by the New Jersey Policy Perspective, on the shrinking numbers of teacher candidates in preparation programs in New Jersey. That report references an earlier report I wrote for NJPP on the NJ teacher workforce; that report looked at, among many other things, teacher compensation. SPC has also criticized that report, focusing on the sections on teacher wages. 

There's a small echo chamber for this sort of stuff here in New Jersey: a couple of bloggers will pump it up and add their thoughts, "reform" groups will pass it around social media, etc. What's curious about this last round of criticism, however, is that several people contacted me to say they had received news of SPC's report through email, even though they never signed up to receive messages. People receiving unsolicited copies of criticisms of my work is a new one for me -- I can only assume I really touched a nerve.

I don't have a problem with anyone critiquing my work; in fact, I regularly write reviews of research from think tanks for the National Education Policy Center. But it's a rigorous process, with a clear format and several layers of editorial review. That keeps a reviewer from just flinging anything they think of on the wall and hoping something sticks.

I'm not going to go through and do a point-by-point rebuttal of SPC's criticisms. Many are, to be frank, silly: arguing, for example, that I made a point about a limitation of the data in an appendix as opposed to the main text is nit-picking of the highest order.

But let me quickly get to the main issues:

- Teacher wage modeling. SPC makes no objection to the functional form or the covariates included in my wage models. They do object that my data does not disaggregate private and public school teachers -- a fact I point out and write about in my report. I have to wonder if SPC would have even made its objection on this point had I not brought it up.

SPC tries to use a graph I included, which shows the difference in reported teacher wages between two different data sources, to determine the gap between private and public school teacher wages. But the graph is not showing this; it's showing the difference between two data sources: the NJ Department of Education's salary data, and the IPUMS data I used for the report.

SPC suggests substituting the NJDOE salary data for the IPUMS data would narrow the wage gap I show for teachers. But substituting one data source for another, just for teachers, is wholly invalid. The IPUMS data are survey data; the NJDOE data are salaries reported from all school districts. The reported salaries from a survey could be easily biased downward for all respondents (some people reporting take-home pay instead of before-tax earnings, for example). And there is no way to know just how many private school teachers are included the survey.

When you do an analysis like this, you go with the best data you've got, use it uniformly, and note the limitations and possible biases. I've done that. Trying to ding me for it is petty.

- Other research. SPC makes a big deal about how other research comes to conclusions that are different than mine. Again: I'm the one who brought up all the other research and compared it to my own. I admit in my report that the latest iteration of the Economic Policy Institute's teacher wage gap model shows a significant change for New Jersey teachers, with a much smaller wage gap than they found the year before. How can I be "burying" it when I'm the one who brings it up?

It is odd to see such a large swing in one year, so, yes, I consider the latest EPI report an "outlier." We'll see what their future research shows. This is what social science is: looking at a problem from various angles with different data and comparing the results. What is not valid is what SPC does when it tries to prove a teacher wage advantage: pulling out results from various reports that align closest with its predilections, then combining them even though they use different methods and different data. That's an undergraduate mistake and a bad indulgence in confirmation bias.

- Teacher benefits. Central to the issue of teacher compensation are whether and to what extent benefits, such a health insurance and pensions, make up for the wage gap. I am very clear in my report: I make no attempt to determine whether this is the case. I cite other work that has made the attempt, and I cite research on the generosity of NJ teacher pensions and benefits relative to other states. SPC says: "Citing irrelevant research obfuscates rather than illuminates." I choose not to underestimate the intelligence of my readers and include these citations; I have faith that they are perfectly capable of putting these references into the proper context.

- "Underpaid" teachers. The issue of estimating the worth of benefits brings up a larger point: how can we model all of the aspects of teaching as a career -- pay, benefits, personal satisfaction, etc. -- to determine whether teachers are underpaid? The answer is that we can't. I have known teachers who have told me they would work for free if they had to because they love the job so much. If New Jersey could find enough of these people, it could slash taxes and our schools would still thrive.

Obviously, however, that's not how the real world works. The relevant policy question is whether teacher compensation is high enough to continue to attract enough qualified workers into the profession. It is wholly germane to that discussion to note that teachers make less in wages, on average*, than similarly educated workers, even when holding other factors constant. It's especially relevant when some NJ policymakers constantly talk about reducing teacher benefits, as those benefits are helping to close this wage gap.

- Teacher candidates. SPC admits there is "...a real and worrisome decline in the number of teacher candidates, and that New Jersey’s education system needs a large pool of qualified teacher candidates." Yet that is the primary conclusion of my report.

I'll say it again: SPC agrees with the primary conclusion of my report.

Their objection, then, isn't with my data or analysis-- it's with my contention that this decline is likely linked to teacher compensation and working conditions. Is it so far fetched to assume that compensation might be involved here? I include several citations in my first report that show that compensation does, in fact, influence workers' decisions to go into teaching. Is SPC really trying to deny this? Are they arguing that compensation doesn't affect people's career choices?

SPC argues that I have not shown a direct causal link between teacher policies in New Jersey and the decline in candidates. It's an odd argument to make when SPC also contends that millennials' attitudes toward work are affecting teacher recruitment, but offers no causal evidence to support their contention; apparently, only my arguments have to withstand their dictated level of scrutiny.

Here is what we know: we have fewer teacher prep enrollees and candidates per 1000 students than in the last ten years. During that time, teacher benefits degraded (thanks to Chapter 78). There's strong evidence teachers were already behind on wages compared to similarly educated workers. Research shows teacher compensation affects decisions to enter the profession.

SPC can dance around all they want, but those are the facts; if they find them inconvenient, that's on them.

- What about the rest of it? If you only read SPC's criticisms you would think all I've reported on was teacher compensation and the decline in teacher candidates. In fact, that was only a part of these reports. I actually consider other sections to be more important.

  • The teaching workforce does not look like the student population. The majority of teachers are white females, yet that's not the case for NJ's student population. We've got to get more people of color into teaching, and yet the number of Black and Latinx teacher candidates is falling.
  • Teacher wages are not similar across districts of different socio-economic status. It appears that the most affluent districts are willing to pay a wage premium to experienced teachers with advanced degrees. This is a question of equity that needs to be addressed.
  • SPC says I don't talk about barriers to entry into the teaching profession. In fact, I discuss it specifically with regards to racial bias, which is a serious problem. I also reference recent work by Drew Gitomer on EdTPA, a problematic hurdle for student teachers.
SPC doesn't address these issues of race and class as related to teacher compensation and recruitment. I would urge them to leverage some of what appear to be their substantial resources toward these topics; perhaps SPC's staff could convince their funders that they are important.

* One of the bloggers who joined in on criticizing my work has made a big deal about comparing "mean" and "median" wages between teachers and other workers. If anyone wants to get into a whole discussion of the validity of using a quantile regression method in teacher wage modeling, be my guest. I'd just note the data is censored at $250K, so it's really not that big of a deal. (Yes, I should have noted that in the report.)

UPDATE: This is incorrect: the data is censured in the aggregate when reported, but not the micro data I use. So yes, non-teacher data skews upward; I regret the error. However, my point in the next paragraph stands. (Also, after checking again, I can report there are no 7-figure income figures in the data; highest observation is $720K.)

It's also odd to argue that I'm overestimating the teacher wage gap because the top of the pay distribution for other workers is much higher than it is for teachers. The fact that a teacher in the highest pay quantile will never make what a similarly positioned lawyer makes doesn't much help the argument that teachers don't suffer from a wage gap.

Key and Peele explain it better than I can:

Thursday, July 2, 2020

How Schools Work: A Practical Guide for Policymakers During a Pandemic

This post, unlike most of the others on this blog, does not rely on data analysis or research reviews. It is, instead, the observations of someone who has spent decades working in PreK-12 schools.

I'm offering it because I've read and heard a lot of commentary from a lot of people who seem to think we can quickly prepare for reopening schools in the fall, as long as we have some flexibility and maybe some extra resources. I'll be the first to say (along with others) that more funding is absolutely required if we're going to have any chance of reopening schools.

But even if schools get all of the money they need, and staff show remarkable ingenuity and creativity, there are some basic, inconvenient truths we need to face about how schools work before we claim we can reopen safely this fall. So, in no particular order:

- Children, especially young children, cannot be expected to stay six feet away from everyone else during an entire school day. Sorry, even if a school has the room, it's just not going to happen. One adult can't keep eyes on a couple/few dozen children every second of every hour of every day to ensure they don't drift into each others' spaces. You certainly can't do that and teach. And you can't expect children to self-police. Young children are simply not developmentally able to remind themselves over seven hours not to get near each other.

- Children cannot be expected to wear masks of any kind for the duration of a school day. At some point, the mask has to come off; even adult medical professionals take breaks. And anyone who's worked with young children knows they will play with their masks and not even realize they're doing it. It's simply unrealistic to expect otherwise.

- The typical American school cannot accommodate social distancing of their student population for the duration of the school day. Schools were designed for efficiency, which means crowded hallways and tight classrooms. Schools are expected to foster student and teacher interactions, which means close quarters. Expecting every students and staff member to maintain a 3 foot bubble* around themselves is not realistic given the way most school buildings are laid out.

- School staff do not generally have isolated spaces in their workplaces where they can stay when not working with children. I don't have an office; I have a classroom. I'm only by myself when the kids leave... but everything they breathed on and touched and coughed on stays. I'm not an epidemiologist so I don't know exactly what the consequences of this are, but I suspect it matters.

- School buses cannot easily accommodate social distancing, nor can they easily adjust to accommodate staggered school sessions. School buses aren't as big as you remember (when's the last time you were on one?). Social distancing is the last thing school bus engineers had in mind when designing the things. In addition: school districts often stagger the times of bus routes, usually by grade level, to get all the kids to school (this is why high school often starts much earlier than elementary school). If you go to split shifts, you are conceivably expanding a bus's routes from, say, 6 to 12.** Unless you greatly expand the school day and pay a lot more for busing staff, it's not going to work.

- Like every other workforce, school staff have many people who have preconditions that make them susceptible to becoming critically ill when exposed to Covid-19. The big worry I keep reading about is age -- but that's just the start. Three-fourths of the school workforce are women, and many are in their childbearing years; are we prepared to have pregnant teachers working? What about teachers who think they might be pregnant? And then all the pre-existing conditions...

- Schools are only one part of the childcare system in this country. The big worry seems to be that if we don't get kids to school, parents can't get back to work. But for many (most?) parents, the school day only covers part of the work day. Before- and after-school programs are a big part of the childcare system. Are we going to be able to enforce all the same restrictions on children during these hours that we will during the school day?

- Unsupervised adolescents cannot be expected to socially distance outside of the school day if schools are reopened. If we've got adults showing up at bars without masks in the middle of a frightening peak in Covid-19 cases, what do you think teenagers are going to do when school's done for the day? Especially if we leave them at home, unsupervised, learning remotely while their parents work?

- Teachers are trained and experienced within an area of certification; moving them out of that area will lead to less effective instruction. When you become a teacher, you get a certification -- maybe even two or three -- in a particular area. Each certification requires coursework, and often a placement as a student teacher, in that area. A secondary math teacher, for example, has to study math at a certain level, and then learn how to teach it. You can't expect a kindergartner teacher who's been trained in early childhood education to do that job -- and vice versa.***

- Even within an area of certification, moving teachers on short notice to a new subject or grade will lead to less effective instruction. How hard can it be to move from teaching 4th Grade to 3rd? More than you'd think. Every grade has its own curriculum, materials, assessments, etc. Teachers spend years developing lessons that often can't be transferred to another grade level or subject; a choir teacher, for example, can't just take her lessons over to the school band, even if she is a great music teacher. Expecting teachers to move quickly between grades or within areas and not face a learning curve defies common sense.

- Moving a teacher to another school building is often difficult. First, there's the stuff: the materials, the equipment, and so on. Then there are the relationships, often built over years. These things matter; they are the foundation that builds a school into a community of learning. Breaking them apart has real consequences.

- Many schools had a hard time getting qualified people to become substitute teachers before the pandemic. It doesn't pay particularly well, has little to no job security, and requires at least some college credit (in many states). Now districts have to find workers who are willing to do the job in a school full of potential virus transmitters.

I'm leaving out a lot, but this should be enough to at least give everyone pause. Operating schools during a pandemic will not be easy. I'm not at the point yet where I'm saying we shouldn't try, but we have got to think carefully and challenge assumptions before we open the schoolhouse doors this fall.

And we shouldn't even consider opening without substantially more money. More on that in a bit.

* It's already become a source of confusion: if each kid has a 3 foot bubble, and two bubbles bump against each other, the kids are 6 feet away from each other. Right?

** Say a bus does an elementary, middle and high school route every day; that's 6 trips, because there's pick up and drop off. Now double that.

*** In fact -- and I say this as someone who has taught at all grade levels from Pre-K to 12 -- it is, in my opinion, more difficult for a secondary teacher to learn how to teach young children than the other way around.