“It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s going to be better,” Lydia McNeiley, a college and career coordinator from Hammond Indiana, summed up the sentiments reflected in many US back-to-school stories this year. Quoted in an Education Week story on “Student Wellness Issues for Schools to Watch This Year”, McNeiley captured the mixed feelings expressed in many of the headlines.
“It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s going to be better,” Lydia McNeiley quoted in Education Week
Despite occasional optimism, for the most part, the talk of “re-imagining” schools has been replaced with stories about the realities of dealing with concerns about missing students, money, socio-emotional development, health, safety, and, particularly with the recent release of the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, learning.
Reports of some positive changes and offerings of hopeful advice are also pprinkled among the headlines For his part, US Education Secretary Cardona noted the importance of addressing issues like how to provide more support for teachers, but he also looks forward to a “return to normal:” “I’m really thrilled that students are feeling that back-to-school excitement the way it was before. It’s not back to school with a caveat.” (U.S. Secretary Cardona: how to fix teachers shortages, create safer schools, EdWeek).
“49.5 million students were enrolled in public schools in fall 2021…well below the 50.8 million students who were in public pre-K-12 before the pandemic began. Where are the other 1.3 million kids?” – Education Week
“Eighty-three percent of school district technology leaders report that they will expand their cybersecurity initiatives, with a majority (62 percent) also increasing their cybersecurity budgets…By contrast: in 2020, only 31 percent said they were increasing their cybersecurity budgets.” –Education Week
“Another year, another reason to cancel classes: soaring school heat worsened by faulty or non-existent air-conditioning. School closures due to heat are not new but they have been increasing significantly, with numbers doubling in cities such as Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver and Philadelphia”, – District Administration and Daily Kos.
“Sixty-one percent of principals and 37 percent of teachers surveyed by the RAND Corporation reported experiencing harassment about these politicized topics, which contributed to burnout, frequent job-related stress, and symptoms of depression…. And there are signs this contention has led to a chilling effect: 1 in 4 teachers have been told to stay away from conversations about political and social issues in class. Seventeen states have imposed bans and restrictions on how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, either through legislation or other avenues” –Education Week
In this month’s Lead the Change Interview, Elizabeth Leisy Stosich talks about her work focusing on understanding how district, school, and teacher leaders can work together to strengthen the quality and equity of students’ learning opportunities and outcomes. Stosich is Assistant Professor and Associate Chair of the Division of Educational Leadership, Administration, and Policy at Fordham University. The LtC series is produced by Alex Lamb and colleagues from the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website
Lead the change (Ltc): The 2023 AERA theme is InterrogatingConsequential Education Research in Pursuit of Truth and charges researchers and practitioners with creating and using education research to disrupt institutionalized forms of discrimination. The call urges scholars to challenge traditional methods of inquiry in order to create increasingly useful, responsive, and equity-oriented research that can be used by schools to develop informed policies and practices to better support students. What specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?
Elizabeth Leisy Stosich (ELS): I appreciate how AERA’s theme this year urges us as scholars to take responsibility for critically considering not simply what we research but how we approach our research and the consequences of these decisions. As educational scholars, we are (hopefully) deeply invested in understanding and supporting meaningful improvements in schools and systems. Yet, as educators and scholars, one challenge we face is that we each bring our own biases to understanding problems in education and, correspondingly, the change that is needed. These biases can lead us to define problems and identify solutions in particular ways, ways that may not reflect the actual problem as experienced by those closest it. For example, as a scholar focused primarily on instructional improvement, I can be quick to identify problems as student learning challenges that require new professional learning for teachers and school leaders. When you’re a hammer, every problem requires a nail. For me and many of the educational leaders I work with, we can be quick to see each problem as simply requiring new or different teacher PD. We can also be slow to give up on ideas that we’ve deeply invested in even when they either are a poor fit for the problem or we see little evidence of authentic improvement.
As educational change scholars, I think a central aspect of centering equity and pursuing truth is to engage as partners with the stakeholders closest to the “change.” In improvement science this is often described as being “user” centered. When we partner with practitioners, we need to take time to carefully understand and define the problems we seek to address with our change efforts. These initial decisions have important implications for the change work we take up. I think we are much more likely to be successful in supporting meaningful change when we engage in shared problem diagnosis and solution identification as partners with educators and the students and communities they serve. Through this collaborative process, we can bring more diverse perspectives to defining the problems we center in our change efforts.
Ltc: In your work, you examine relationships between school leaders on decision-making teams and during policy implementation. What are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?
ELS: In my own research (Stosich, 2020, 2021) as well as a number of large survey studies one thing stands out: principals think they are involving teachers in decision-making and teachers do not agree. Looking closely at decision-making in instructional leadership teams (ILTs), I found one explanation for this gap; principals typically involve teachers in decision-making only superficially. For example, principals may ask teachers to decide whether or not to move forward with a proposed initiative (e.g., Should we do lesson study?) rather than engaging them more fully as partners in problem diagnosis and solution identification (e.g., How could we work together to strengthen our instruction?).
This is a big problem for two reasons. First, truly engaging teachers as partners in decision-making is a powerful leadership practice because it allows for teachers to draw on their instructional expertise and knowledge of students and colleagues to inform the decision. Second, when principals and teachers make decisions together, principals gain teachers’ commitment for implementation as part of the decision-making process. When principals only engage teachers superficially in decision-making, they don’t benefit from teachers’ knowledge in shaping the decision and are unlikely to gain their commitment for implementing the proposed solution.
“Through this collaborative process, we can bring more diverse perspectives to defining the problems we center in our change efforts.”
Ltc: In your recent work investigating how educators experience policy shifts in high-accountability contexts, you find that policy alignment, thoughtful sequencing, slower pace, and extensive support can be helpful in creating successful change. How might your findings help scholars and practitioners imagine and implement policy changes more effectively?
ELS: I think we would benefit from paying greater attention to the larger environmental conditions we are creating for policy change. What are the conditions we are creating and what do they feel like for the educators responsible for policy implementation?
In a strategy activity in my book with Michelle Forman and Candice Bocala, The Internal Coherence Framework: Creating the Conditions for Continuous Improvement for Schools, we ask educators to reflect on the question: What does it feel like to be a teacher in this school? I think this question is essential in policy change. Do teachers feel like they are focused and engaged in sustained learning in an effort to implement a change that will result in meaningful benefits for students? Or are they overwhelmed by multiple initiatives with little time to really understand and apply new learning about these ideas in their classroom? We typically pair ambitious policy goals with pretty limited support for learning what changes are necessary to meet these goals. Changing practice is difficult and time-consuming work!
My research looking specifically at principals suggests that when principals acknowledge the challenge presented by new instructional policies and frame this challenge as one that requires learning to work with students and content in new ways, they are more likely to close the gap between current practice and policy goals than when they frame the challenge as one of simply executing new approaches (Stosich, 2017). As research from Amy Edmondson and others suggests, when we frame policy change as a “learning” rather than an “execution” challenge, we acknowledge that we don’t know everything we need to know to meet our goals for policy change and, thus, open ourselves to new learning and change. An execution challenge is more appropriate for routine changes, which are rarely the focus of policy change.
In my research with Emily Hodge on the Common Core (Hodge & Stosich, 2022), we found that when policies are introduced in rapid succession even those that are connected and reinforcing can be experienced by teachers and leaders as overwhelming and incoherent. This is particularly true when you introduce high-stakes accountability. We need a supportive environment for learning and change during policy implementation, one that provides the time and support necessary for learning and change before introducing accountability. This should include sustained, job-embedded opportunities for professional learning about the policy change and systems that reinforce and support this learning, such as aligned curriculum and assessment materials and ongoing, developmental feedback for teachers and school leaders.
“Learning is challenging but also rewarding—something we need to acknowledge and celebrate.”
Ltc: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?
ELS: Be part of the change yourself! As scholars, we learn and change our thinking all the time (hopefully!) based on new understanding we gain from those with whom we study and work.
We need to share openly with our partners about how we are shifting our beliefs and practice and why. I think this modeling is important for reinforcing the idea that learning and change is an opportunity for growth and not simply an admission of weakness. Just this past fall I really shifted how I think about how people connect and develop relationships through improvement work after a comment from a member of our doctoral program led me to question some of my assumptions. I always assumed that we build the relationships that support our collaborative learning and improvement through working together towards shared goals. A student remarked with some surprise that we seemed to just “get right down to business” working on identifying and addressing problems of practice before really getting to know each other on a more personal level. This comment really struck a chord with me and led me to think more deeply about the very personal nature of change and what relationships could best support our collective change efforts. I tried to reflect openly about this change and how her thinking had changed my own during the course in hopes that this would encourage others to be open to change. I also thanked her—learning is challenging but also rewarding—something we need to acknowledge and celebrate.
Still, change can be personally challenging. Something I read in James Spillane’s (2004) book about standards implementation has stuck with me for a long time: when we ask people to learn new ways of doing familiar things, we risk damaging their self-concept. Essentially, when we ask people to change what they are already doing, we ask them to admit that what they have been doing wasn’t good enough and needs to change. This can feel a lot like telling me that I’m not good enough. I think the change process becomes less daunting when we share openly and model how we are changing our own beliefs and practices. This is important for people in all roles but particularly for leaders—are you asking others to be open to change without being open to change yourself? This creates an inhospitable environment for authentic learning and change, which requires acknowledging the limitations of our current knowledge and being open to new ideas and approaches.
Ltc: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?
ELS: I am excited about the more critical lenses educational leaders and scholars are bringing to their work in educational change. In doing so, there has been greater attention to not only issues of achievement and access but also issues of identity and power as part the focus of change. For instance, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from some very exciting work happening in a Bronx Community School District that involves networks of principals working together to address three equity-focused issues: reducing racial disproportionality in chronic absenteeism, strengthening culturally responsive-sustaining education (CRSE), and creating more affirming and inclusive school environments. In my view, chronic absenteeism is an access issue, while the district’s work on strengthening CRSE addresses issues of identity—including ensuring students’ identity is reflected in the curriculum—and power, as they teach students to understand and address systems of oppression. I am energized by the focus on more holistic, student-centered, and culturally responsive discussions of learning and change taking place in so many districts and schools.
My favorite recent book is Decoteau Irby’s Stuck improving: Racial equity and school leadership. One important lesson I took from his research on racial equity improvement is that centering Black and Brown people’s perspectives, what he describes as “Black and Brown people’s influential presence,” is essential for understanding problems and monitoring progress (and setbacks) with attention to the influence of race and racism. This involves much more than simply seeking out the perspectives of Black and Brown youth, educators, and community members on the change work at one point in time. Instead, it involves building the organization—the school or district—in ways that will ensure Black and Brown people are not only present but actively influencing our change work at every step—including the problems we identify, the decisions we make about how to work on them, and all our learning along the way.
Forman, M. L., Stosich, E. L., & Bocala, C. (2017). The internal coherence framework: Creating the conditions for continuous improvement in schools. Harvard Education Press.
Hodge, E. & Stosich, E. L. (2022). Accountability, alignment, and coherence: How educators made sense of complex policy environments in the Common Core era. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. https://doi.org/10.3102/01623737221079650
Irby, D. J. (2021). Stuck improving: Racial equity and school leadership. Harvard Education Press.
Spillane, J. P. (2004). Standards deviation: How schools misunderstand educational policy. Harvard University Press.
Stosich, E. L. (2017). Leading in a time of ambitious reform: Principals in high-poverty urban elementary schools frame the challenge of the Common Core State Standards. Elementary School Journal, 117(4), 539-565. https://doi.org/10.1086/691585
Stosich, E. L. (2020). Central office leadership for instructional improvement: Developing collaborative leadership among principals and instructional leadership team members. Teachers College Record, 122(9). https://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentId=23383 Stosich, E. L. (2021). “Are we an advisory board or a decision making entity?”: Teachers’ involvement in decision making in instructional leadership teams. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1080/15700763.2021.1995879
Do schools around the world show the same basic patterns of organization and instruction found in US schools and classrooms over the past 100 years? Larry Cuban explored this question in a series of speculative blog posts over the past few months. Cuban acknowledged the limitations of his unsystematic review of classroom photos he found on the internet, but Cuban’s reflections also serve as another opportunity to continue conversations about what has and hasn’t changed in schooling over time and across contexts. To that end, in this week’s post, Thomas Hatch pulls together some of Cuban’s observations and photos.
To what extent does the prevailing organization of the age-graded school and dominant teacher-centered way of instruction found in many U.S. public schools characterize schools and classrooms in other countries? Larry Cuban asked this question in a series of seven blog posts that began with Schooling in the U.S. and around the World (Part 1). He posed this question as one means of challenging his own observation of these patterns in the US, wondering, “perhaps I am incorrect because there are other ways to organize classrooms and teach elsewhere in the world of which I am ignorant. This latter possibility of my being unaware of other patterns in organizing schools and teaching approaches in other nations is one I want to explore. I may be incorrect in claiming these historic patterns of schooling and teaching in the U.S. are present in other nations.”
Cuban’s posts show photos with common images of students sitting in rows facing the front of a classroom:
Some of those posts also show photos that feature both the same classroom organization that dominated US classrooms throughout the 20th Century and the display or use of new technologies invented at the beginning of the 21st Century:
Along with the pictures of students in sitting in rows around the world, an occasional picture shows students and teachers seated in a circle:
While acknowledging the short-comings of his approach and inviting readers to challenge his generalizations, Cuban concluded “…similarities are obvious:
Every nation compels parents to send their sons and daughters to school up to a decade or more.
Every one pays the costs for schooling either directly or indirectly.
Every one is age-graded.
Every one publishes national (or state) curriculum standards for each elementary and secondary school subject.
Every one tests student performance in elementary and secondary school subjects.
Every one has at least one teacher for each classroom.
Some are national (or federal) systems and some are state-operated with the federal government and states splitting funding and supervisory responsibilities. All of these nations and their states set curriculum standards for each subject and administer tests to determine if schools and students are meeting those standards.
Some nations have centralized systems (e.g., France, Russia, Italy, Japan) where ministry officials make decisions for schools and some are decentralized (e.g., Canada, U.S. Norway) with states and local districts having a moderate degree of discretion to alter what national authorities require. Whether centralized or decentralized, individual schools in every nation have some autonomy in adapting national or state curriculum when organizing for instruction. Need I add that once they close their classroom doors, teachers also exercise discretion in teaching the lesson they planned for the students in front of them that day.
What needs to be stressed that these commonalities among nations in establishing and operating systems of schooling over the past century exist side-by-side with inevitable within-nation variations between rural and urban and wealthy and poor schools that exist. Both commonalities and variations influence the schooling and teaching that occurs daily.”
In place of this month’s Lead the Change (LtC) Interview, Alex Lamb, LtC Editor posed this key question to leaders of several professional organizations in education. Below, we share Lamb’s introduction, her question, and the responses she received. Lamb is a postdoctoral researcher in the Learning, Leadership, and Education Policy program at the Neag School at the University of Connecticut.
Note from Alex Lamb, LtC Editor: This month, we decided to pause our regular format to better respond to the wave of recent Supreme Court rulings deeply impacting the daily lives of millions of educators and school children specifically. These rulings have shaken many of those in our community and ushered in sweeping changes to the systems we rely on for care and learning.
As I read the news, I felt scared, rageful, demoralized, and dehumanized. I thought about how we might use this platform and this community to build coalitions that move us to a better future. In these desperate times, how can we lean on our communities to find solace and energy for the path ahead?
In this issue, we hear from the leaders of professional organizations, AERA (American Educational Research Association), AEFP (Association for Education Finance and Policy), UCEA (University Council for Educational Administration), and our Educational Change SIG chair. In hearing from these leaders, we hope to provide guidance, solidarity, hope, and community. I asked them to respond to the following question:
Recently, there have been a rash of Supreme Court decisions that have fundamentally reshaped American society and schools including women’s rights to bodily autonomy, the use of public funds for religious schooling, and shifting rules regarding prayer in schools. What role do you see professional organizations of education scholarship playing in helping scholars and practitioners navigate these tumultuous and dangerous times?
These leaders all generously offered ideas about how to best move forward in these trying times. I hope you find something in this issue to support and sustain you. These responses helped me to feel less alone, and I hope they can do the same for you. Take care of yourselves.
The Work of Consequential Education Research in Pursuit of Truth
H. Richard Milner IV, President, AERA,
Felice J. Levine, Executive Director, AERA
The questions posed to us by the editor of the Lead to Change Series are very timely and complex. There is no single function or role that defines what we do. The American Research Association (AERA) as a scientific member association has multiple tools and approaches at our command consonant with our mission.
On matters of public policy and position taking, AERA has been enabled by a statement on Position Taking and Policy Processes Guidelines adopted by AERA Council in January 2005.1 That document overviews the range of ways that AERA as a professional research association can address significant social policy issues through research. The value of featured symposia, teach-ins, and professional workshops at the AERA Annual Meeting; research briefings to governmental agencies and holding public fora that bring together researchers, policy makers, and practitioners; special issues of journals elevating research and research directions; and professional development workshops to build capacity in the research community are just some of those ways.
When the issues are societally significant and the research is compelling, AERA with Council’s approval has prepared and led research amicus briefs or joined sign-on letters to communicate the scientific studies and scholarly bodies of work that need to be considered by courts or policy bodies. AERA has done so over two decades in a series of “affirmative action” education cases before the Supreme Court. The decision to do so is consonant with AERA’s mission to serve the public good and make accessible research when the education research is compelling, when the issues are of high social significance, and when distortion of research for advocacy ends may also be evident.2
As we at AERA see it, professional research organizations have an essential role in supporting and facilitating the advancement of knowledge, in building the capacity to do so and in fostering wide awareness of that knowledge to peoples around the globe. Especially in these deeply polarizing and political moments in the United States, our attention to salient issues of public significance needs to be more rather than less elevated, and we need to press for evidence-based decisions. Where there is germane education research, we also have an organizational responsibility to be sure that work is visible and accessible in policy and practice settings and that researchers in our field are encouraged to do so.
“Education research must be designed intentionally to bring to light when policy or practice formulations harm certain groups or the collective good.”
The work of professional organizations in response to Supreme Court decisions such as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and the decisions on religion and schooling bring to the fore all these issues. To be sure, members of AERA embody an enormous range of diversities and have various belief systems. Members also reflect a spectrum of political views ranging from ultra-liberal to highly conservative. They also approach their research and the problem spaces they probe from different epistemological orientations. They draw from divergent conceptual and theoretical tools. They construct different conjectures and support or are active in different forms of advocacy or mission organizations that reflect those interests and views. What binds us together, however, is our members’ commitment to our research mission—to advance knowledge in ways that embrace discussion and debate, that allow for and consider divergent questions and issues, and that arrive at research implications or applications based on the best of our knowledge at any point in time.
“The lives of many women will never be the same under this ruling, and our organizations must be responsive to these shifting times.”
In our view, this means that AERA must be steadfast in our emphasis on research—in naming, speaking out against, and building systems to dismantle injustice and inequity based on robust and sustained study.3 To be consequential – it should lead to evidence about education in relation to the potential deleterious effects of rulings and policies that have a real bearing on physical, psychological, and emotional health and wellbeing of our members as well as the communities in which we study. In this way, education research must be designed intentionally to bring to light when policy or practice formulations harm certain groups or the collective good. Moreover, education research must be consequential in making recommendations based on science— for what these moments of societal shifts might mean for the lives that education helps to shape.
As an organization, we hope we will as a community work to do the following:
Listen to, be sensitive and empathetic toward, and work in collaboration with the people most influenced by oppressive policy and practice shifts. This means that expectations for research, knowledge production, teaching, and service in institutions such as higher education, think tanks, and other organizations must shift expectations based on needs of women.4
Learn about and make recommendations on ways to co-construct communities of health and wellness and not operate from a business-as-usual framework. The lives of many women will never be the same under this ruling, and our organizations must be responsive to these shifting times.
Focus our research, teaching, and service on matters that address intersections of the Supreme Court rulings and education. In short, educational organizations have a responsibility to work with communities to design research agendas of education consequences in theory, practice, praxis, and policy.
Share what we know widely and often. What we learn and come to know from education research must be shared as widely as possible with communities inside and outside of the academy. As politicians make decisions about education, they should be able to rely on the world’s largest education research association to find answers to problems. Because those outside of our communities may not read traditional outlets with education research such as full-length books or journal articles, our work can be informative and shared through blog posts, poetry, data-rich opinion essays, social media commentaries, music, short films, YouTube clips, and newspaper articles.
Consonant with steps 1-4 above, AERA’s 2005 guidelines also provide for AERA’s speaking out in opposition to or in support of public policies that centrally affect our field (see 2005 guidelines on “mission-oriented policy and position taking”), including related to the education research workforce. The Dobbs decision is likely to have an adverse impact on women graduate students and professionals in education research. The implications of this situation for further actions by AERA, including with other scientific associations, is under active consideration.
AERA has not heretofore been silent in unparalleled times. But we reaffirm that our responses must be guided by the best of what we know from sound empirical research in pursuit of truth and the Association’s commitment to diversity and equity for all.
Jason A. Grissom, President, AEFP
The Association for Education Finance and Policy (AEFP) is a professional organization for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners tackling the most important education finance and policy issues of the day across the spectrum from early childhood to postsecondary education. Our primary goal, stated in the AEFP mission statement, is to promote research and connections between researchers and policymakers/practitioners that can inform education policy and finance and, ultimately, improve educational outcomes.
The question of how professional organizations like ours can help scholars and practitioners navigate the current environment is one for which we have very incomplete answers right now. That’s why I start with our mission: when organizations face new questions, mission statements can provide direction. And ours highlights that two ideas sit at the center of AEFP’s work: research and connections. So, in thinking about how AEFP can help our members respond to the current moment, I start with those ideas.
Let’s start with research. An important way we can meet the current moment is by creating space and visibility for timely, high-quality research to inform the policies and practices that must respond to these big changes in our social environment, especially as they intersect with education. Our members care deeply about current issues and no doubt will be generating new evidence about these shifts and their impacts on students and educators. We can promote that evidence and help push it into public debate.
To this end, the last annual conference featured a special track for research on racial and other forms of educational equity and another for research on COVID-19. We organized “policy talks” (featuring researchers and practitioners in public conversation) that directly addressed these topics. We invited a keynote who spoke to the connection between research and advocacy around this “dual pandemic.” We plan for our next conference to similarly highlight research, policy, and practice around social and educational issues exemplified in Texas, given that Fort Worth is slated to host the event. This means directing attention toward research at the intersection between education and, for example, reproductive care or LGBTQI+ rights that are so salient in Texas and beyond.
The point is that AEFP members often shape their research in response to issues of the day, and we want the conference and our other events to be ready vehicles for sharing, discussing, and spreading that research. Professional organizations like ours are uniquely positioned to play this kind of elevating role.
“A more inclusive community is going to supply better answers to more complex problems of policy and practice.”
Finding new ways to build connections are just as important. A defining characteristic of AEFP has always been the sense of community among its members, and community feels more valuable now than ever. One of our major initiatives of the last year has been the creation of new “community groups” organized around different aspects of identity (e.g., scholars of color, LGBTQI+ members) to promote networking, reflection, and professional learning opportunities. In tumultuous times, a role of professional organizations is to build this kind of connective tissue, and indeed this year we are doubling down, investing new resources and starting new groups. Tighter connections to fellow travelers can be key sources of support and reinforcement.
They can also present new opportunities for collaboration around the research the field needs to address the challenges a rapidly shifting policy environment poses. That’s why it’s so important now that we strengthen connections not just among the kinds of researchers and policymakers who traditionally have made up AEFP’s membership but among a more diverse set of voices. A more inclusive community is going to supply better answers to more complex problems of policy and practice. The current moment should be (and in our case, at least, is) intensifying efforts of professional associations to become more welcoming and deliberately inclusive of a diverse membership.
David DeMatthews, President, UCEA
Education research societies, such as the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA), play a critical role in encouraging and supporting education research and preparing the next generation of researchers and practitioners. Education research societies provide important opportunities for training future researchers and practitioners, disseminating research findings, and incubating and testing innovations and new ideas. Over the past few years, the importance of these research societies has become even more critical.
“Over the past few years, the importance of these research societies has become even more critical.”
Perhaps more than ever before, education researchers and practitioners are working in a highly politically-divisive environment. Climate change continues to disrupt life on our planet and the work of education systems while many elected officials deny its existence. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted communities, families, students, and educators. The murder of George Floyd and ongoing calls for racial and social justice led many state legislatures to make it illegal to teach about racism or a true accounting of U.S. history. The Trump administration’s separation of children from families at the U.S.-Mexico border, the January 6 th attack on the U.S. Capitol, and a wave of recent Supreme Court decisions undermine American values, civil rights victories, and the separation of church and state (e.g. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization; Carson v. Makin).
The current divisive political context is a serious challenge for education research societies and its members, but also serves as an important opportunity to reflect, build and strengthen relationships, and further advance knowledge for the public good. At this moment, education research societies are extremely important because they serve as powerful, formalized social networks able to speak to broad social challenges and offer the public evidence-based insights into complex issues. However, education research societies must be even more intentional about how they mentor aspiring and current researchers and practitioners, how they sponsor and disseminate research, and their approaches and opportunities for incubating new ideas.
Moving forward, education research societies can be more responsive and further their missions by:
Investing in preparation pipelines that attract more diverse researchers and practitioners capable of drawing from different disciplines and experiences;
Partnering and participating within other research societies and practitioner organizations to champion research, practitioner knowledge, and justice;
Safeguarding academic freedom so researchers and practitioners can raise questions and new ideas without fear of retribution;
Strategically investing into areas of research that can serve the public good and address pressing problems of practice;
Mentoring researchers and practitioners to be more effective at communicating research findings and relevant information in nation, state, and local policy arenas.
These actions are not comprehensive but can bolster the impact of education research societies and their members as they seek to advance the public good. Many education research societies are already engaged in these efforts, so it is also important that researcher and practitioner members remain engaged, volunteer, participate in governance and oversight activities, and offer ongoing support within their respective societies.
Jennie Weiner, Chair, Educational Change SIG
As someone who considers herself an intersectional feminist and spends quite a bit of my professional life thinking about how to make educational systems more equitable and better places for adults and students to grow and learn, it is perhaps not a surprise I have recently been in conversation with a number of people, including some of my students, colleagues, friends, and family members trying to make sense of these court decisions and seeking advice of how to respond. Never have I felt so unable to provide comfort or really answers of any kind to myself or others. I feel gutted, I am despairing, and honestly, I don’t know what to do.
My paralysis is not due to a lack of affiliation or a failure of those in positions of power or leadership in our field to try to give comfort or purpose to our work. Rather, I am at a point where I think, just as our foremothers argued, that using the very systems that enabled these things to happen will not work to change them. I don’t think these are problems that can be solved with better research or doing more of the work we have always done (or even some of what we haven’t). The tools that I have as an educational researcher are insufficient to make the laws of this country treat me and other women, girls, and any other pregnant person as human beings with bodily autonomy and the right to live. No matter how good I am making my work accessible via social media or through op-eds, I do not believe I can make those in power reinstitute the separation of church and state or to stop the use of public funds for religious education and prayer in school.
So what to do? Well, I might suggest that there are lots of people who have been fighting for our rights and the rights of educators, communities, and children without it being officially sanctioned by those in power and that we should be looking to them and not to the academy for answers. I note here that some of these are folks are in our SIG and AERA more broadly and have worked hard to tell us that we would never get real transformation through the existing system. There are also community organizers, educators, parents, young people, and lots of others who have long been doing this work and know what to do and how to do it. We should ask them what to do and listen when they tell us. I’m trying to follow this advice and do all I can to listen deeply to them, learn from them, use my resources to uplift, bankroll, and promote their work.
“There are community organizers, educators, parents, young people, and lots of others who have long been doing this work and know what to do and how to do it. We should ask them what to do and listen when they tell us.”
This does not mean I am giving up on my work or educational research more broadly and what I believe it can do – move people to ask different and hopefully more thoughtful questions about change and school systems and equity. In this best cases, such efforts will then lead to new and better solutions. As such, I still plan to engage in my research, serve the larger education community, and teach and learn from my students. In my professional life, I will continue to make a stink that can push the academy, the professional organizations with which I affiliate, and my institution to be fairer and more humane.
As the Educational Change SIG, I would suggest too that we can do the same in our organization and respective institutions. We can push for policies and structures that challenge the status quo and evoke research ideas and methods that promote equity and justice. But I am also going to be honest with myself that while this work is important, it is not, in and of itself, my solution to how to navigate these times, nor do I expect it to be – and that makes me feel just a little bit better.
See, e.g., Levine, F. J., & Ancheta, A. N. (2013). The AERA et al. amicus brief in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin: Scientific organizations serving society. Educational Researcher, 42(3), 166–171. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X13486765
The adverse impact of COVID-19 for graduate student and early career women and women of color was pointed out in Levine, F. J., Nasir, N. S., Rios- Aguilar, C., Gildersleeve, R. E., Rosich, K. J., Bang, M., Bell, N. E., & Holsapple, M. A. (2021). Voices from the field: The impact of COVID-19 on early career scholars and doctoral students [Focus group study report]. American Educational Research Association; Spencer Foundation. https://doi.org/10.3102/aera20211v
This week, Sam Abrams lays out some of the key implications of recent Supreme Court decisions related to education, highlighting that by failing to acknowledge related foreign precedents, the US Supreme Court has made clear that religious schools can get public funds without adhering to the same standards and regulations as public schools. Abrams is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Education at Teachers College Columbia University; Director, National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education; and a Fulbright Visiting Professor, University of Turku, Finland, 2022-23. He is also the author of Education and the Commercial Mindset (Harvard University Press, 2016). This post was published originally as The Telling Gap in Carson v. Makin by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.
In tandem with its reversal of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court stands to substantially alter everyday life in America with its recent decisions of Carson v. Makin, amplifying its support for public funding of religious schools, and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, allowing prayer in public schools. The significance of Kennedy is blunt. With the Court ruling 6-3 along party lines that the dismissal of a football coach at a public high school in the state of Washington for holding post-game prayer meetings violated his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion, we can expect similar meetings as well as Bible study sessions, nativity pageants, and the like in public schools across the country. Such events will surely lead some students to feel coerced into participating for fear of disappointing peers and authority figures. In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor indeed noted that a lower court had determined that some players said they joined the coach’s prayer meetings “because they felt social pressure to follow their coach and teammates.”
The significance of Carson is more subtle but equally profound. In Carson, the same justices ruled 6-3—as forecasted on this site following oral arguments in December—that Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from partaking in its Town Tuitioning Program likewise violated the right to free exercise of religion. This program covers all or part of the cost for students in rural districts without high schools to attend either public or nonsectarian private high schools in nearby districts or beyond (if the school is public, the total cost is covered; if it is private, coverage is pegged to per-pupil statewide average spending). With this decision, we can expect religious groups in considerably rural states across the country to lobby legislators to create programs similar to Maine’s.
But there’s another dimension to Carson, which derives as much from what it did not say as from what it did. To grasp the wider implications of Carson requires understanding what is missing from the decision. While many countries—such as Belgium, France, and the Netherlands—have for many years allowed a considerable portion of their students to attend religious schools with public funding, the Court did not cite such foreign practice. In the Netherlands, in fact, 55 percent of students attend religious schools with public funding. Why then didn’t the Court cite foreign practice? This indifference to foreign practice holds, as well, for the majority opinions in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002, validating the provision of government-funded vouchers to cover tuition at religious schools in Cleveland, and Espinoza et al. v. Montana Department of Revenue in 2020, mandating that if a state permits students to attend private schools with scholarships funded by a tuition tax-credit program, it cannot bar religious schools from participation.
American jurisprudence does tend to stick to domestic precedent, but that custom cannot explain this disregard for education policy abroad.
American jurisprudence does tend to stick to domestic precedent, but that custom cannot explain this disregard for education policy abroad. After all, former Justice Anthony Kennedy, who voted with the majority in Zelman, was a prominent champion of deference to foreign practice and inspired others to follow in his path. In authoring the majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, Kennedy famously drew on British legislation and the European Convention on Human Rights to overturn state laws criminalizing homosexual relations. Two years later, Kennedy made use of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child in writing the majority opinion in Roper v. Simmons to nullify the constitutionality of the death penalty for juvenile offenders.
The answer to this question is crucial. To have invoked foreign practice would have been to invite trouble. Publicly funded religious schools in such countries as Belgium, France, and the Netherlands are regulated to a degree that American proponents of religious schools would find unacceptable. In Carson, Chief Justice John Roberts conceded in this light that while Maine public schools must adhere to specific standards for instruction in a range of subjects, that is not so for nonsectarian and religious private schools. Though accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), such schools, wrote Chief Justice Roberts, “are exempt from these requirements, and instead subject only to general ‘standards and indicators’ governing the implementation of their own chosen curriculum.”
In Carson, Chief Justice John Roberts conceded in this light that while Maine public schools must adhere to specific standards for instruction in a range of subjects, that is not so for nonsectarian and religious private schools.
As Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out in his dissent, one of the two schools at the heart of Carson, both of which are accredited by NEASC, considers academic and religious education “completely intertwined,” so much so that “in science class, students learn that atmospheric layers ‘are evidence of God’s good design.’ ”At religious as well as nonsectarian private schools funded with public money in such countries as Belgium, France, and the Netherlands, curricula must comport with national standards (meaning, for example, no attribution to divine design for atmospheric composition). In addition, teachers must be certified and guaranteed access to union membership while members of the LGBTQ community cannot be barred from either enrollment or employment.
The parameters of NEASC and other independent school organizations across the United States do not come close to such expectations, as Justice Breyer’s point about science education indicates. Indeed, many religious schools, such as the two defining Carson, refuse to hire gay or lesbian teachers. While Maine passed an amendment to its human rights act to bar schools from receiving public money if they discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity, that does not mean other states motivated by Carson to create similar programs will enact such protections; nor does it mean that Maine’s amendment will go unchallenged on the grounds that it interferes with an institution’s right to free exercise of religion.
In a guest essay in The New York Times, Aaron Tang, a professor of law at the University of California, Davis, cited this amendment as a model for deflecting the impact of decisions like Carson, but he neither acknowledged that other states implementing town tuitioning programs might not take such action nor recognized that Maine’s amendment might not last. Setting aside whether public funding of any form of religious schooling poses a threat to democratic values by fostering societal division and conflict, as Justice Breyer claimed in his dissent, there can be no doubt that public funding of lightly regulated religious schooling poses precisely such a threat.
Setting aside whether public funding of any form of religious schooling poses a threat to democratic values by fostering societal division and conflict, as Justice Breyer claimed in his dissent, there can be no doubt that public funding of lightly regulated religious schooling poses precisely such a threat.
Policymakers abroad have understood this. And it is basic to our own tradition. The Supreme Court made this clear in 1925 in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, ruling unanimously that Oregon could not, as decided by a statewide referendum in 1922, bar private schools from operating but that it was empowered to carefully regulate them. “No question is raised concerning the power of the State reasonably to regulate all schools,” the Court declared in Pierce, “to inspect, supervise and examine them, their teachers and pupils; to require that all children of proper age attend some school, that teachers shall be of good moral character and patriotic disposition, that certain studies plainly essential to good citizenship must be taught, and that nothing be taught which is manifestly inimical to the public welfare.”
With Carson building on Zelman and Espinoza, public funding of religious schooling appears irreversible. But that does not mean the message of Pierce and the lessons from abroad cannot be heeded. With Kennedy, the public school as neutral common ground is over.” With Carson building on Zelman and Espinoza, public funding of religious schooling appears irreversible. But that does not mean the message of Pierce and the lessons from abroad cannot be heeded. With Kennedy, the public school as neutral common ground is over.
In part 2 of this interview, Patience Mkandawiretalks with Thomas Hatch about Fount for Nations recent evolution, work during the COVID school closures, and next steps. Part 1 of the interview focused on the origins and initial challenges in developing an organization that has developed school, hospital, and community programs to support the education and development of differently-abled children in Malawi. In addition to being one of the founders of Fount for Nations, Mkandawire was selected as an Obama Scholar at Columbia University during the 2021-22 year.
Gaining control of the program and focusing on schools Thomas Hatch: You’ve told us about the origins of Fount of Nations in the activity center you established at a hospital; about the first two years after you established Fount of Nations with work in activity centers in several hospitals and in resource centers in schools. What was the next step? What was the next big transition point?
Patience Mkandawire: At that point, we expanded to include more attention to community engagement, which also has its own set of challenges, but we also closed the hospital program. We narrowed our focus to working with schools and community engagement. At the same time, we realized that because we didn’t have our own space we operated basically on the whim of the schools and the teachers; we had no control over our programming. We started thinking that to really control our own program and maintain fidelity of our programs, we needed our own center, like our model school. We started planning for that and that opened in 2020, which was bad timing, of course, because that’s when the pandemic hit.
But when we started doing more work in the community, we realized the economic barriers that many of our parents faced, which was not something we had focused on. We started doing home visits and found that a lot of our parents had come from a village, left their land, and come into the city and were living in areas with very poor economic conditions. That started us thinking that we should develop an economic empowerment program. Initially, I was not too keen on this, but my field team insisted that we really had to do it because the parents weren’t listening to us. There was a time that one of the counselors went out for a group counseling session and when she came back her face was gloomy. “What happened?” I asked her, “Was the turnout not good?” And she said “This is by far the best turnout. I had close to 40 parents come to the session, but all of them are on my neck saying things like ‘words can’t help us because all you do is talk to us. We want money, we want a livelihood.’”
“This is by far the best turnout. I had close to 40 parents come to the session, but all of them are on my neck saying things like ‘words can’t help us because all you do is talk to us. We want money, we want a livelihood.’”
I was opposed to that because it’s not an area we knew anything about. Nobody on our team was an expert on it. But we began to do some research on micro-finance, and we tried a partnership with another organization that was already doing business and economic empowerment for mothers.That partnership however didn’t last long enough to yield results. We were stuck on logistics of how to train parents that often had to take care of their kids full-time. I am not sure what it really was but most organizations we tried to work with weren’t really willing to make adjustments to take into account the unique needs of children with disabilities or their families. But we soon learned about Opportunity International. They had been training farmers and other populations in financial literacy, and we were able to get them to do financial literacy training for us. Then, once the parents were trained, we realized we needed to give them access to money…so we reached out to some of our funder friends, the Segal Family Foundation who connected us with a funder that was willing to give direct social cash transfers to some of our parents. We linked the cash transfers to the child’s education. In that way, we created incentives for increasing children’s attendance at school, and it turned out great.
TH: You said the economic impact program was successful, but what was your measurement of success?
PM: We measured academic indicators such as attendance, progression and parent involvement in learning. We also measured social indicators like how many meals do the children eat a day. For example, before the program (and during the pandemic), 76% of the parents said their child ate once or twice a day because they just didn’t have any money. After the financial literacy training, the numbers flipped. Over 80% were able to eat three times a day. In addition, close to 70% of the businesses they started with the initial social cash transfers are still running.
The Pandemic & Beyond
TH: Can you talk a little bit about how the pandemic affected the development of your program. What did you learn and how has that influenced how you think about developing and sustaining the program in the future?
PM: The pandemic is why I am here in the US, as part of the Obama Scholars program. When the pandemic hit, schools closed. And that was the first time we had ever imagined that anything would happen to our schools, I just can’t describe the feeling… All our programming happened in schools; our teacher training happened in schools; our parent convening happened in schools; many of our community convenings happened in schools. Schools are central in almost every village so they were very easy access points for us to meet people and to convene people, and suddenly, schools were all closed. And our teaching was all paper and pen. We had started doing some digital data collection, but our teachers across the country still taught on the blackboard
I remember one of the first things I did was give a break to the entire team. We just decided “Okay we’re all going to go home, and we’re going to take a two week break to think about what we’re going to do. Can we survive without schools? Like what sort of work can we do? How can we support our participants? Our community members? Our champions? Our advocates?”
“Can we survive without schools? Like what sort of work can we do? How can we support our participants? Our community members? Our champions? Our advocates?”
Over that break, the Government started to respond. They said “We’re going to have remote learning programs and we’re going to have TV and radio programs.” But I was thinking, “How is this going to reach a child who learns differently? Who cannot process? Who cannot hear?” Fount for Nations needed to respond too, but at that point, our team was also at risk and there was a lot of fear that we might die. But the team realized “if we are this scared, imagine what our parents are going through?”
It was really a team effort, and my husband and I would check in with individual team members and ask, “How are you doing? What are you going through?” But one by one, they said things like “We need to come back to work.” First, we said “We’re going to support the government in doing remote learning, and our parents are going to be teachers.” That was a gamble, but we brought back our volunteers and decided they would provide the support because teachers could not go in the homes. We had the volunteers meet with the teachers and learn about the typical lesson plans for the week and then the volunteers would call the parents, and the parents taught the children. Fount for Nations led a coalition of 4 education partners of the Segal Family Foundation to deliver remote learning to 3000 primary school learners across the country. One of our other long-time-partners, Rays of Hope ministries, released a handbook for teachers to support the school radio programs, and we used that to train our volunteers. Then we just started deploying SMS texts and phone calls, and that’s how the kids learned during that period. All this is happening on the phone. It was a surprise in some ways how well parents responded. Our volunteers would set appointments with the parents, and if our volunteers were late, we’d receive a phone call, “I just wanted to check with you because I’m looking at the time, and she hasn’t called yet. Is everything okay?”
The second thing was the counseling sessions. We also did that on the phone. Our counselors set up a protocol for mental health screening, and we started calling all our parents. They’d get a call – “How are you doing?” – to check in. If the parents’ needed extra support, the counselors would refer them or consult with them. We were also taking a gamble because this was the first time we’d ever called the parents for counseling sessions. Our counseling sessions had been in person. If the parents needed to cry, the counselor was there to just feel that with them. Now the sessions were not only over the phone, some of them were with a person the parents had never met because we had to increase the number of volunteers to make all the calls. It was a much higher volume.
It was crazy, and I was just upset at how in 2020, we still didn’t have any digital options for kids with special needs to learn in Malawi. In 2020, we didn’t have any psycho-social or mental health support for parents. In 2020, we didn’t have any therapists that could offer mobile services or online services. In 2020, Fount for Nations was one of three, maybe four organizations in the country that focused on education for kids with special needs. I just felt “I can’t do this,” because clearly people were not convinced that our work was as important as we think it is. That’s when the opportunity to come to Columbia came up. Joseph, my husband, said “Go. You need inspiration. You’re stuck. I think you need to go and meet awesome people. Meet experts. Get inspired. Come with ideas and then we’ll continue.” So I did, and I’ve been studying things like comparative policy studies at Teachers College, non-profit policy and advocacy, learning how international education policy is formulated. So now I’m thinking Fount for Nations is much more than a direct service provider. I’m thinking of Fount for Nations as a critical player in the ecosystem for inclusive education: as bringing all these stakeholders together to define and sustain the ecosystem and to inspire more actors to care about this issue.
in 2020, we still didn’t have any digital options for kids with special needs to learn in Malawi. In 2020, we didn’t have any psycho-social or mental health support for parents. In 2020, we didn’t have any therapists that could offer mobile services or online services
That’s been a big shift in terms of our plans and in our overall strategy. For example, in our training, we’re thinking of using a “train the trainer” model and focusing on being really, really good at that. We could offer that training to a wider range of organizations that can support learning and development for teachers and for children, particularly those who have learning difficulties. I’m also thinking about how to get back to the health care system because there’s still a role that they play, especially in assessment and diagnosis. I’m also thinking more about research now. How do we collect action-oriented data? How do we apply evidence-based research and implementation? Now merging those three things – advocacy, training and research – is becoming the core of our future plans. We are now working towards Fount for Nations becoming the Center of Excellence for Inclusive Education in the country and bringing together all these elements to really reduce the inequalities that exist in access to quality education for these children. I want to acknowledge that from our journey we’ve learned that the child’s education has not really been what the child is taught, but who else is around them that supports their learning. If the teachers’ perceptions are wrong; if parents’ perceptions are wrong; if community perceptions are wrong; if healthcare is not supported; if research is not adequate; if the government does not fund social services, then, no matter how creative our approach is – which was our initial idea – kids still won’t be learning. They still won’t be succeeding.
“We’ve learned that the child’s education has not really been what the child is taught, but who else is around them that supports their learning.“
TH: You really tied up that story beautifully and transitioned into where you’re heading. One thing you didn’t mention, though, that kind of brings you back to your initial experience with your brother, is your interest in growth monitoring because you’ve identified early screening and assessment as critical factors moving forward. Can you just say a word about your strategy with that?
PM: Yes, it was like a light bulb moment when I realized we could build on that. Like I said before, children in Malawi go to see a community health care worker for the first five years of their lives. From birth up to five, every single month, they have to go for growth monitoring. They are just going to get their weight checked; they’re going to get their height checked. And it’s mostly for nutrition screening, deworming, vaccinations, but they never get screened for developmental delays or learning difficulties. But I realized it’s a great opportunity because we could intervene early. The project I’m working on right now is, first of all, to adapt the assessment tools that are recommended so they are simple to screen for developmental delays and learning difficulties. And then we’ll train the healthcare workers to administer those assessments at the regular checkups that the kids come to anyway. That way we’ll get to see how many kids are at risk of developmental delays or at risk of learning difficulties. Then we can design workshops for the parents, because, with the pandemic, we’ve found that they can teach and help support their kids. For example, now that we know a child is struggling to sit up, how can we support the kid early on? And how can we intervene early? For most of these issues, parents would not know or understand that their child has something like epilepsy or even cerebral palsy until they were in primary school or even later. For example, I remember Elisa, whom I met when she was 17, and she had to drop out because she was just too big to be in primary school, and no one knew she had epilepsy until she repeated the same class 4-5 times! I wonder if we had met Elisa when she was six months or a year old? What difference might that have made? Could she have coped with her condition and been more successful? We want to make sure that these kids have a strong start by giving parents the information about what conditions their children have and the information that they need to help cope. Hopefully this generation of children will have a much better start.
In part 1 of this interview, Patience Mkandawiretalks with Thomas Hatch about the origins and initial challenges in developing Fount for Nations, an organization that has developed school, hospital, and community programs to support the education and development of differently-abled children in Malawi. Next week, part 2 of the interview will focus on Fount for Nations more recent evolution, work during the COVID school closures, and next steps. In addition to being one of the founders of Fount for Nations, Mkandawire was selected as an Obama Scholar at Columbia University during the 2021-22 year.
The Origins of Fount for Nations Thomas Hatch: Could you start by telling us a little bit about how Fount for Nations got started. What got you interested in these issues?
Patience Mkandawire: It was basically my mom who pushed me. She loved helping people and there was a time I was taking my baby brother for growth monitoring — in Malawi, growth monitoring happens every single month for children from birth to five years. When I was 14 or 15, being the eldest, I took my brother into the clinic and we were stuck in a line from 7 am to 3 pm and all he needed to do was get his weight checked! I went back home, and I said, “Mom, that was such a waste of my time.” She just told me, “You’re not the only one who wasted your time, so maybe you should go and help out.” And so I did. I went back to the clinic, and I asked a Dr. “Why do we have such long lines? How can I help?” “We don’t have a lot of people who do triage,” the Dr. told me. “If you wouldn’t mind just weighing babies that will drive the traffic a lot faster.” That’s how I started.
I said, “Mom, that was such a waste of my time.” She just told me, “You’re not the only one who wasted your time, so maybe you should go and help out.”
After that, I started volunteering at a local hospital [one of only two hospitals in the country that offered chemotherapy] and I had a lot of time to understand why the kids were in the hospital, and I was very curious about their learning. At one point, I met a boy who had lymphoma and he told me that he was in grade four, but I found out he could not write his name — he wrote his name backwards and confused the B’s and the D’s. For me, that was so fascinating because I never really struggled in school, and here was this boy who was supposed to be moving into upper primary school, how could he not know how to spell his name? I talked to an American pediatrician there who sort of took me under her wing. She showed me things around the children’s ward. She introduced me to special needs, and she told me he might have what we call dyslexia. At that point I set up an activity center for children at the hospital. I worked with a team of UN volunteers, and we did a little bit of fundraising for it. We did a toy drive and then a book drive, and I spent a lot of time with the kids, tutoring them and giving them opportunities for play and coloring and drawing and things like that.
That was really the first step. Then I went to college and studied nutrition and food science. The hospital was in the same city where I studied, so it was easy for me to just go there to check on things because I was not doing this alone, I was doing this with the team of professionals. After college, I didn’t have a job right away, and I volunteered at my mom’s school because my mom was a teacher at a private school. There I met another boy. This time it was looking like he had autism and his teachers were automatically failing him. But I got to spend time with him, and I discovered how he learned and found he loved storytelling and drawing. I experimented by telling him stories for whatever lesson he was supposed to be learning and asked him to draw. For example for his history class or his geography class, I’d tell stories about the Amazon and the insects there and the other species, and then he would draw. He did so well, and l thought “What an interesting way to learn.” But then I thought, “If this is what it looks like in a private school, I wonder what it would be like in a public school?” I visited a public school, and I found a lot of the same drama and problems there and that really started everything. It was a combination of experiences. I volunteered in different spaces then finally, I was like, no, something needs to be done and that’s when I set up Fount for Nations, with the support of my mom and my, then, very close friend who’s now my husband. We registered the organization and wanted to focus on children’s learning and children learning differently and to use creative arts as a way to teach literacy and numeracy. After I registered the organization, I went back to the activity center at the hospital, and it became one of the places that we worked. We re-opened the center with trained volunteers and trained healthcare workers. We professionalized it because I was now more aware and more organized.
TH: After establishing Fount for Nations you worked in healthcare settings and in schools, but did you have a focus at that time on working with children with developmental or learning differences?
PM: That hasn’t really changed. I wanted to see that children who learn differently or are differently-abled can progress in school, but our scope was larger. We did programming in hospitals and programming in schools and programming in communities. And our goal was wherever a child is, they should be able to continue learning and succeed in their learning. So that was basically it…we wanted to see these kids do better in school and progress through school. We’ve been trying to achieve that ever since.
“that was basically it…we wanted to see these kids do better in school and progress through school. We’ve been trying to achieve that ever since.”
But the hospital programs, initially, were a little bit different. Even though it all started with a child who had cancer and a learning difficulty, not all of the children in the hospital were like that. For the hospital program we had to open it up. Our criteria were that the children had to be in primary school, six years to twelve years old, and the other criteria was they had to be in the hospital receiving treatment that would keep them out of school for a period of three months or more. According to the school schedule, if a child misses three months or more then they repeat the whole year, and we wanted to avoid the repetition. If they were going to be in a hospital for more than three months receiving treatment, then they qualified for our program. Kids with malaria, for example, did not qualify, because those are short treatments, but if they had tuberculosis, if they had cancer, or if they had HIV – that was also a very big deal at that time – then they could be enrolled in our program because they would be absent from so many classes. We later reduced this requirement to a month or more of hospitalization or if they were on treatments that required multiple hospitalizations.
The school program, on the other hand, has always been 100% children with learning differences because we work in school resource centers. These are special centers within the school where all the kids with different conditions come in and that’s where they get their support. In the resource centers, it doesn’t matter the child’s age or their ability, they are all put in one room with one teacher. That’s why it was such a challenge because even two kids with autism or two with cerebral palsy had very different needs. Children with cerebral palsy may have some mobility or no mobility. Some kids with autism were highly functional, but others weren’t. As a consequence, with the resource centers at the time, some of it was just the amount of work that the teachers had to put in to offer individualized learning. That’s where we came in: to provide the volunteers to reduce the student-teacher ratio. When we started, that ratio was around 45 or 50 to one teacher. We placed up to three volunteers per school reducing it to about 5 to 10 kids per teacher or teaching assistant. That’s how it was structured in the beginning, for the first two to three years of our work, focusing on strengthening the health care system and strengthening the school system to be able to support the children.
TH: What are some of the first challenges you faced as you tried to work in these different areas? PM: The first challenge was at the hospital where I started the first activity center and in understanding the place of education in health care. There was a new leader at the hospital. He was not a pediatrician. He did not think that there was value in addressing the social-emotional aspects of patient care. He felt that we just needed to focus on physiology so we were in conflict. As one of only two hospitals in the country that offered chemotherapy, kids and their families often had to travel 400 kilometers from their homes to receive treatment. This was not easy on the families, so the hospital would admit the children for the duration of their treatment. That meant six months in the hospital, nine months in a hospital, a year in the hospital. And this is time away from school, away from socialization, away from friends, away from play, away from everything that is familiar to a child. My argument was that this affects their recovery; it affects how they respond to the medication; and, of course, it affects their parents, many of whom don’t believe their kids can get better. So, we offered emotional health care for the parents and also for the child focused on play. And we used play to explain the different conditions and to explain the process of chemo to them. We used to play to help them just unwind and not be afraid of all the needles and being in the hospital. Also, we used play for learning and for providing continuity so that when they went back into school they are not lost and they have not regressed.
Everything came to an end when we were planning a fundraising event to renovate an old building into a new activity center for the hospital because we were starting to run out of space. There was a building that they used as a construction warehouse that was empty, and we wanted to renovate it. Everything was all set, but the day before the event, there was a misunderstanding with the hospital director and he literally kicked us out of the hospital. Just like that the program ended, and Fount for Nations left the hospital. I was so disappointed, but the beautiful thing about it is we had trained volunteers and healthcare practitioners, nurses and community health workers to provide play therapy and support the children socio-emotionally. I think the program stopped for about six months, but then it picked up again and now it’s being run independently.
The other challenge we had was with schools. We worked in resource centers for children with learning differences in government primary schools and those schools had their own unique challenges like low teacher salaries, lack of training for teachers, and teachers being overburdened. Initially, we sat down with the teachers and we said, “What do you need to help you succeed? To help these kids succeed?” And they said “we need extra help; we need teaching assistants, we need materials, we need help with parents.” So, we focused on all those things.
We also asked the parents, “Is this helping?” And what the parents said was, “This is great, but there is a lot of stigma and discrimination in the communities, and we get really discouraged and really disheartened.” We had been doing a lot of information sessions with parents to help them understand the different conditions that the children had, and we wanted to help them with coping strategies. But they told us, “The problem is bigger than us.” Building on that, I wanted to help combat myths like these kids are bewitched and should be locked away which comes from the community, so we started doing a lot more community engagement and started working with chiefs and local leaders to start raising awareness around the abilities of children with developmental and learning differences.
We had an advantage for this work because in schools we started what we called “showcases.” At these showcases, kids from the resource centers would demonstrate what they had been learning. Because we used creative arts, it was very tangible, with displays of bangles, mats and color paintings among other creative projects. People were super excited. They’re like “oh these kids can actually do things!” Around the third year, we started an annual auction. We took what the kids produced at the hospital and the schools and worked with an artist to frame them, and then we auctioned them off. Part of it was fundraising but the most important part was raising awareness about what these kids can do about what they are learning. It was an educational family fun day as well as a fundraiser.
But after a year of doing everything that the teachers and the parents wanted, we realized we couldn’t financially sustain it, so we sat with the teachers again and asked them, “What works? What doesn’t work? What has worked for you, this year, and what hasn’t worked? And what are your priorities?” They told us, “We would like you to focus on teacher training and parent support.” So, we dropped the material support. We dropped the volunteer program. We dropped the showcases. Instead, in addition to providing trainings for teachers, we started advocating in communities directly as opposed to having the school as our base. That later on served us in the pandemic because we had other avenues to deliver our programming, as opposed to just being stuck in a school.
“…We started advocating in communities directly as opposed to having the school as our base. That later on served us in the pandemic because we had other avenues to deliver our programming, as opposed to just being stuck in a school.“
This blog by Melanie Ehren and Martijn Meeternwas originally published by LEARN!. Ehren is a Professor in Educational Governance and Director of Research Intsitute LEARN!, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Meeter is Full Professor, Faculty of Behavioural and Movement Sciences, Educational and Family Studies, LEARN!
In many countries, COVID-related school closures affected already disadvantaged students most in their opportunities to learn and progress. In the Netherlands, the Inspectorate of Education raised the alarm over how the pandemic is leading to further inequality, with alarming numbers of students leaving primary education without the basic skills in arithmetic, reading and writing. As in many countries across the world, the Dutch government is developing new policies to address learning loss from COVID and ‘build back a better system’. These policies include funding for schools to organize targeted support for students in need (e.g. tutoring, remedial teaching) with further investments for schools serving a disadvantaged population. In addition, a government-wide investigation is now underway to better understand the root causes of educational inequality and how to make the education systems more responsive to policies addressing those root causes.
A decentralized system and a coordinated approach
Improving education from the top is not an easy task, given the highly decentralized nature of the education system in the Netherlands and the value placed on school autonomy. The OECD describes Dutch schools as having the highest autonomy internationally. Freedom of education has been the backbone of Dutch education for decades, and is a core value for many policymakers and practitioners working in education.
A more centralized and coordinated approach is, however, crucial to reduce inequality, given that differences in learning opportunities and outcomes often lie outside a school’s span of control. Examples are of parents’ free school choice, which leads to highly homogenous schools with a concentration of social, behavioural and learning problems in some schools, or the early tracking in secondary education which tends to disadvantage children from poorly educated and/or migrant backgrounds. Various studies have mapped out the causes and consequences of the high inequality in the Dutch system with one clear message: this is a complex problem because of its multidisciplinary nature (spatial, social, economic inequalities interact and reinforce each other) where any type of measure to improve education will have multiple outcomes, a high level of interconnectedness, and non-linear outcomes. The high complexity requires a coordinated approach that goes beyond individual interventions or programmes, but where the goal is to change how the whole education system operates to reduce inequality.
Where should we start when trying to address high inequality?
Ideally we want a set of interventions that have a multiplier effect where their collective impact on reducing inequality is greater than the sum of single activities. As good teachers and high quality teaching are the backbone of any education system, this is where we should start: We need to ensure that all school have sufficient high-quality teachers.
“The OECD TALIS report also indicates a sharp decline in the status of the teaching profession in the Netherlands… By reducing entry requirements, we unintentionally lower quality standards as well as the status of the profession.”
However, the Netherlands faces a large teacher shortage that will only become bigger in the future. Predictions are that secondary schools in 2023 will have a shortage of more than 1000 teachers with a further estimation of a shortage of 2600 fte in 2026, due to retirement. Certain subjects (Dutch, German, French, ICT, Mathematics, Science etc) will be particularly affected in the future, while schools in some urban areas in the country are already in constant crisis management to fill vacancies. Approximately 12% of primary schools in the large cities (e.g. Amsterdam) have permanent vacancies as teachers are moving to more affordable places to live and work. Even when a sufficient number of teachers enters the profession (which is unlikely given current student numbers on teacher education programmes), many of them leave due to high workload and stress, a lack of support and too much responsibility when starting to teach, an unsupportive school environment with too few opportunities for career progression and lack of communication with colleagues and school leadership. An average of 31% of beginning teachers in secondary education tend to leave teaching within five years of graduation.
The Ministry of Education has tried to increase the number of teachers by allowing schools to hire unqualified teachers while they train to be teachers on the job, but these teachers seem to be particularly prone to exit the profession. It’s also worth questioning this strategy for the message it sends to the profession at large: how should we understand the nature and status of teaching when we allow anyone with a degree in Higher Education to be a teacher? The Inspectorate of Education reports that an average of 7% of primary schools have unqualified teaching staff and this has detrimental consequences for the instructional quality and children’s learning outcomes. The OECD TALIS report also indicates a sharp decline in the status of the teaching profession in the Netherlands. This may well be an important factor in shortages, as low status affects the potential to recruit sufficient high quality teachers. By reducing entry requirements, we unintentionally lower quality standards as well as the status of the profession. Unfortunately, past policies have seen more of such inconsistencies, such as the introduction of a professional register which provides entry barriers but also increases the administrative workload of teachers without necessarily improving the overall quality of their work.
What can we do to increase the number of high quality and qualified teachers?
Various studies look at the types of interventions that can help build a strong and sufficiently large body of teachers. Here is a summary of the top 6:
Ensure high-quality school leaders. School leaders play a critical role in determining whether teachers are satisfied at work and remain at their school (Kraft et al, 2016), while their instructional leadership can improve the teaching in their school.
Ensure a good working environment for teachers. Sims (2021) review of empirical literature stretching back 20 years suggests that the quality of the working environment in a teacher’s school is an important determinant of retention. A good working environment includes limited administrative workload and marking, collaboration with colleagues and having a manageable classroom of students in terms of their behaviour and teacher-student ratios. The school leader will have an important role in shaping these conditions of work, but external stakeholders (e.g. Inspectorates of Education) will also have a role to play.
Ensure that new teachers are supported when starting teaching and receive feedback and coaching from experienced teachers in the school.
Ensure teachers are paid more in the most difficult schools, in the most unaffordable areas to live in, and to teach the subjects that are least popular. Sims and Benhenda (2022) find that eligible teachers are 23% less likely to leave teaching in state funded schools in years they were eligible for payments with similar results reported in the US.
Ensure that teachers have career prospects within the teaching profession, so that they don’t have to find these elsewhere. Singapore’s model is exemplary in this regard, while other countries (e.g. England) are also increasing the opportunities for a career in teaching (including formalizing professional development for the various stages).
Ensure that teaching is valued as a profession and has high status in society (e.g. such as when entry requirements are high and the job is paid well).
And one final take-away message: policies and measures need to be coherent and well-aligned in both aiming to increase quality and quantity; compromising on either will not reduce inequality in the long term.
Hope remains that, despite the tragic losses and disruptions of the pandemic there may be an opportunity to reimagine critical aspects of schooling. Correspondingly, over the past year, a variety of news and research outlets have shared a wide variety of hopes and proposals for change. At the same time, some long-time observers, like Larry Cuban, argue that the proposals and visions for change may not find their way into practice. As he put it, “I don’t see COVID producing a lot of reforms. If anything, it produces this huge public and professional need to resume schooling as it was. I think basically schooling has much more stability than change in it. And that’s the historian’s point of view.” Cuban continues, “I think COVID has reminded us that all parents want is a return to face-to-face teaching and to let the teachers teach the lessons that they had before school closures. Let them do what they do best.” To continue the exploration of the proposals and possibilities for changing schools post-pandemic, we highlight some of the related news stories we’ve come across from around the world, many of which echo trends in the US, including concerns about enrollment, “learning loss,” and well-being among students and teachers, and possibilities for digital/remote learning.
“I don’t see COVID producing a lot of reforms. If anything, it produces this huge public and professional need to resume schooling as it was.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, numerous proposals to “reimagine education” have been made. At IEN, we have been tracking both the news about those proposals for changing education and the discussions of what has (and has not) been changing in schools post-pandemic (see for example “What can change in schools after the pandemic?”). This week, Correne Reyes shares our latest scan of that news in the US and finds some media reports highlighting flexibility around “seat time;” increased attention to teacher wellbeing, and discussions of the ways online learning may serve as a substitute for classroom-based learning. A second scan will focus on educational changes reported in other parts of the world.
Rethinking Time in Schools?
The switch to remote learning in so many schools and districts prompted numerous proposals to rethink “seat time” – the conventional requirements for awarding credit based on the number of hours and days spent in classrooms. As Jonathan Alfuth put it , “While we agree that states must return to policies that ensure districts maximize the amount of time students spend on high-quality learning experiences, we also believe states must seize this unique moment to rethink the way in which they define instruction and credential learning.” These proposals argue for broadening definitions of what counts as “hours” of instruction, where instruction can take place, and how it can be measure (e.g. “How states are rethinking instructional time and attendance policies in the covid-19 era”; “Unlocking innovation in schools: Policies that create space for schools to better support their students”). Some states have begun reshaping their policies to adjust the barriers of seat time. For example, Minnesota proposed legislation that emphasizes personalized, competency-based education, which focuses on “outcomes—mapping to the pace of students’ mastery of knowledge and skills—instead of moving lockstep through time-based lessons and grades.” Arizona established an Instructional Time Model allowing school districts to adopt their own instructional hour requirements for attendance. Meanwhile, Washington created the mastery-based (or competency-based) credit as an option for high school students to earn credit for demonstration of learning on assessments that are tied to state learning standards.
“It’s not for lack of want, it’s not for lack of ideas…It’s really a lack of available professionals who are willing and qualified to provide these kinds of services to help kids and families and ultimately educators.” Ronn Nozoe