Season 2, Episode 5: Where’s the Urgency? What’s happening to today’s youth as academic recovery takes a backseat.
Jim Cowen: This is Jim Cowen from the Collaborative for Student Success, and this is the Route K-12 Exploring Education Recovery podcast. Each week we travel the country on a kind of road trip to talk about the ways federal recovery dollars are being used in states to reshape education. Along the way, we’ll hold up the best examples with the hope that those practices are repeated in other schools.
Our guest today is Andy Rotherham, co-founder and partner at Bellwether, where he’s worked to center data, affect policy analysis, and pragmatism across some of the deepest challenges facing our educational systems. He’s advised both Democratic and Republican education leaders and now serves on the Virginia Board of Education.
He also authors the popular Eduwonk blog and newsletter—I’m a fan—where he considers hot button education topics and very importantly, I might add, showcases his passion for fishing, which I very much appreciate. Andy, thanks for joining us today.
Andy Rotherham: Jim, thanks for having me. It’s great to see you.
Jim Cowen: I want to point out one thing that I noticed last year on an image that you posted either on Facebook or somewhere. And it was a of you going on a trip with your family and you pointing out the difference of, you know, how some families may have a stack of fancy luggage and yours was a pile of duffle bags getting ready to go out on a trip. And I had to laugh because at that moment I was in Alaska with my family, and I was literally staring at a pile of North Face bags that were just duffle bags piled up exactly the same way. So, I think you and I have a very similar belief and passion for going on experiences and trips that are out into the wild, if you will, a little bit. And so, I very much appreciated that and got a big chuckle.
Andy Rotherham: Yeah. Thanks Jim. You know, yeah, that was definitely probably on Facebook. I don’t put pictures of my kids out on public social media. But yeah, that was a great trip, and I think you and I do share two passions. One, like just going and having adventures with your family, but second, prioritizing like just doing things with your family.
You know, my wife and I were getting to the end and my kids are in high school and we’re starting to think about, you know, what’s next for them. They’re becoming young adults and like, it’s just, it’s such a precious time and it’s so fleeting. I look back on some of those trips. I’m so glad that we did it, and honestly, for us at least, I feel like the pandemic, you know, kind of robbed of a year or two where we might be able to have some of those adventures.
Jim Cowen: Yeah, totally agree. We enjoyed so much having, you know, I have two kids and likewise they’re reaching those ends of their education where I know that these sorts of moments are fleeting and we were out on a boat without any access to social media or anything like that. And we cherished those moments.
Andy Rotherham: Alaska’s an amazing place. I’ve been fortunate to be up there a few times and to be able to be there with my kids was the first time they had seen it. And it’s just such a big place and you see so much and just an incredible ecosystem, you know? It’s so different, the coast versus the interior and just to be able to just spend time there and we traveled kind of slow and, you know, kind of kick along. We did some of the Alaska Marine Highway system, the fairies and like, it’s such a mind-blowing place. And it’s just a reason I’m just such a fan of sort of experiential education and those because Alaska’s like nothing else. And you have to see it to really appreciate that.
Jim Cowen: Yeah, you do have to get up there and just see it to really appreciate where it stands.
Andy Rotherham: As you know, I’m a pretty big booster of Virginia. Virginia’s a pretty amazing place, pretty amazing ecosystem. A lot to do here, but like Alaska is kind of a close second.
Jim Cowen: Yeah, absolutely. So, listen the way that I start this kind of conversation is really with a pretty broad question for you and I respect your history with education systems and your personal experience. I just want to get a sense from you, like, how are states doing right now? We’ve been focusing a lot on recovery actions, and that’s the whole theme of this: it’s how are states coming back? What can we hold up that looks good, but I just want to hear from you, how are kids doing? How do you think we’re doing?
Andy Rotherham: Well, there’s a couple of questions there. Like, how are states doing, how are kids doing and so forth. I don’t think students are doing well. I think we have plenty of evidence of that on academics. And we keep seeing again and again data and it’s converging on this issue. There is a substantial academic learning loss and people can dismiss, “well, it’s just one test,” or it’s this or that. We see it on national measures. We see it on state measures. We see it on customized vendor driven measures that districts use. And it should alarm us. Then you’ve also got like, you know, issues around mental health and wellness and, you know, those were issues before the pandemic, it’s easy to forget. The last decade we’ve seen, you know, rising issues with mental health in particular, the policymakers need to pay attention to. And then the pandemic sort of supercharged that cause it was such a challenging, difficult time for so many people. And so, I think in terms of how kids are doing in general, you have to say, we have a big problem.
It’s not every kid, there’s kids who are thriving. I do think we don’t talk enough about the kids who discovered during the pandemic that sort of a competency, outcome-based education was great for them. A customized education, more control over their time. I think sometimes you can hear the narrative can be that the pandemic was terrible for every kid. It wasn’t. There were kids who thrived and really found themselves during that period as well. But for a lot of kids, it was difficult in some different ways. And I don’t think we’re doing what we need to do in terms of a sense of urgency to address that.
Jim Cowen: I want to talk about something that’s on your Eduwonk blog. And it was something you asked Tim Daly about, and you asked him to post. And we should probably get Tim on here to talk about it as well. But I thought it was interesting because this traditional narrative— and we have been the same way, right? —like we’ve been talking about if students are struggling because school’s closed, the solution is that we need to be thinking about our getting back to in-person learning. Looking at how much lost instructional time was there, replacing that with really good investments in high-dosage tutoring or potentially extra, you know, just extra time for instruction. And Tim’s comments were about, there’s some other potential problems there that couldn’t complete the narrative. And it may be around just this notion of screen time, right? Like kids have now had so much more exposure to their phones. Is that an impact? I’m just wondering like what you took away from that when he put that together for you.
Andy Rotherham: Yeah, I mean, I was so glad he agreed to write that. He and I had been talking about that and I was like, you know, would you write it? I think it’s a hard issue as a parent. I mean, I can tell you, and I think I said this in the setup to the piece, if I could have one thing over as a parent– you know, parenting’s all about just making lots of mistakes, but usually they’re not like super consequential, hopefully—but to the big one I would want back, if I got just one, would be technology and like my kid’s relationship with technology. I think a lot of parents, we weren’t as attentive to that as we should be. So, I’m not like some scold like, “oh, you know, I think we screwed that up.”
And I think to Tim’s raising a really important, you know, it’s elevated. It’s not like they’re all watching academic content at any grade. And that obviously, you know, it varies—there’s differences by demographic and so forth. I don’t think it’s like a cut and dry case, but I think what Tim is talking about we ought to look at it and we ought to be willing to ask some serious questions and how much time kids are spending on things like YouTube and what they’re doing, and how that might be related. What does that mean in terms of, you know, not reading printed word, printed content. What does that mean educationally? So, I was glad he put it out there. I think we should talk about it, and we have to recognize, you know, there’s a whole industry that wants kids to be on their phones and their devices as much as possible. I mean, these things are designed for engagement and so we have to have some independence to ask some questions and figure out what is good and not good here. We wouldn’t trust any other industry to do anything like that for us. Here, we should ask some hard questions.
Jim Cowen: Yeah, no, I appreciated you asking him that question because it is a tough one and it deserves more consideration I think for sure.
Andy Rotherham: And again, I think it’s hard for parents, there’s a lot of guilt, right? And so, it can be a hard question for parents to want to be like, “did I make a mistake? I let my kids use apps they shouldn’t at an age they shouldn’t” or whatever. And kids are getting this, younger and younger. And I do think the big thing that Tim points up is this reading issue, encouraging kids to read. And it’s hard to miss, like that is declining and that is probably a problem based on at least what we know about how humans acquire knowledge.
Jim Cowen: Yeah. So along, you know, sort of the same theme—what are the practices that are making a difference? How do you think states are doing as far as measuring progress right now? Are we too early into this? What are some of the strengths or challenges of efforts to sort of track spending and tying that to what’s working?
Andy Rotherham: Yeah, I mean, I think we have a huge problem with transparency. I mean, the work you guys have, I thought it was interesting, you know, you guys have had this Honesty Gap for a long time. And you saw, you know, and this was before I was on the Virginia Board, but Glen Youngkin picked that up. One of the first things he tasked the Department of Education with doing was coming up with the report on what’s going on, it was called the Honesty Gap. And sort of just laid out, you know, here’s what achievement is like in Virginia, here’s what the achievement measures are like, and here’s, you know, context that you should know about those in terms of level of rigor. And, of course, that’s set off a huge debate, even though pretty much everything in it has been subsequently confirmed by other data.
So, I think there’s a problem with states leveling with people about where we are. That’s always been a problem and it’s particularly acute after the pandemic. And in part because look, the data, we had two years of really interrupted assessments, so you don’t have clean trend lines and so forth and we’ve never been particularly good at this. And so, it’s both those things. So, I think there’s a lot of confusion among parents. It’s really fascinating that parents continue to be worried about, you know, they think everybody else’s kid is struggling, but theirs is doing fine. If you see that in the data, like that’s obviously a mathematical impossibility. But we haven’t been communicating with them. How many states are actually affirmatively really making sure they’re equipping teachers to make sure some of the professional development right now is actually, it’s the opposite. It’s equipping teachers to obfuscate around this. And so, you know, there’s this real popular approach to street data and talk about all these other data points that you should talk to parents about. If you’re serious about telling parents what went on during the pandemic and what they need to do, you should be very forthrightly telling them math and literacy and where their kids are.
And instead, you know, we’ve got superintendents saying, “oh, don’t worry about things like the NAEP, that’s not a big issue. Pay attention to our state test or this other thing.” And so, there’s a lot of irresponsibility out there. There’s just a lot of lack of capacity and so forth, and I don’t think we’re doing a good job, like clearly cutting through it. I think this scenario where the media is trying, but there’s not enough focus on it, a sustained focus as well. The NAEP scores, I mean that was catastrophic and like it kind of came and went and now we’re back to like, you know, people yammering on about teacher shortage that is not nearly as acute as you would think from the headlines
Jim Cowen: When we did the Honesty Gap with Achieve, the idea back then was to look at the NAEP scores and then see how states were also recording proficiency at the same time. And those deltas were, you know, a good indicator of like how transparent, how truthful are states being about student progress. And the answer to that was, well, you know, think it’s a strong argument for holding a higher bar, for having a good measurement, for having a good system of accountability in the state. And that was, you know, the reason for doing the whole campaign. Now it feels like, as you kind of said, like, I don’t know if it fits. I don’t know if it’s a perfect, you know, translation because people have asked us like, “well we should redo the Honesty Gap.” And I’m like I’m not sure if it’s going to have the same impact as it did before because of the reasons that you had said.
Our friends at Learning Heroes put out some research basically saying that 92% of parents believe their children are on or above grade level, and the NAEP results completely contradict that. And as you mentioned, the NAEP results came, and the NAEP results went. And have we sufficiently communicated or instilled the demand, the need to address that a across the nation, particularly with the parent community?
Andy Rotherham: Yeah, I don’t think we have instilled that demand. And I think you have erratic support from political leaders. Some political leaders are very focused on this, others are not. There’s a lot of pressure to not talk honestly and candidly about this. There’s professional development that’s very much aimed at making sure people aren’t talking candidly about this. This whole let’s talk about street data and these things. So, I think we need a concerted effort. I mean, you know, it could start obviously with the White House. The President has the most powerful bully pulpit in the country. His wife’s an educator. It could start with letting people know you need to really be aware of where your kid is, and what’s going on and here are resources and so forth. And you need to be asking your school, you know, there’s $190 billion out there to address this. The most recent slug was more than a hundred billion of that. Explicitly for this, ask questions, what is your school district doing? How are they helping you? What resources are they making available? What are they doing?
I mean, the good news we’re starting to see in the data is like the bleeding is stopping, which is good, but now it’s about the recovery. What are you doing to help recover? What are you doing to identify kids who are most at risk? We really run the risk as we have just a lost cohort of kids from this who weren’t taught to read properly. And so, they’re going to sort of drift through school, but they’ll be a big dropout echo that starts to show up 10, 12 years from now. Things like that. Asking really hard questions. And then governors can obviously do that, state boards of education. People need to see their role here as not boosters or advocates for the system per se, but rather as regulators of it and we need to make sure everything’s in place. Make sure it’s serving kids well. That urgency is not there in any sort of a consistent way. And that has to change because you’ve got to get the demand side of this right. And then the politics will respond.
Jim Cowen: Yeah. And yet we’ve seen, you know, this very large parent empowerment come across the country, but, you know, we’ve certainly seen that in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia, and you’re on the Virginia Board of Education. What do you think the movement is sort of meant towards Virginia schools and what are you hopeful for, there’s that much attention, that the parents will focus on?
Andy Rotherham: Yeah, well, parents’ rights mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. But basically, this idea that schools need to be more transparent about what’s going on and more responsive to parents at a general level, I think it’s hard. People do it, but it seems really hard to argue with that and there’s plenty of examples. And look, we’re not going to be able to have an a la carte curriculum on demand. Part of being in a public school is these decisions get made and so forth. And so, you know, you’re not going to be able to have, you know, every parent cannot have input on everything that goes on, but we’re nowhere near having that problem. We’ve got the opposite problem. Parents are not getting in. They feel like they’re getting strong-armed. It makes them mad. That’s a big part of why Glen Youngkin won and look, people were angry about closures, and they felt like they were strong-armed with closures. And then you throw onto it various political agendas and so forth that people were experiencing in the schools. It was obviously a combustible situation.
What’s inexplicable to me is that the Democrats have not come up with their own parents’ rights agenda, right? Being against parents’ rights in America in 2022 seems like an insane political position. And so come up with your own and I think that would actually have a clarifying function because I suspect there’s a fair amount of overlap. This stuff gets, you know, all wrapped up in culture war stuff. But most parents want to know, like if my kid’s taking surveys on things, do I have a right to review and know what’s on that survey? If my kid’s going to be given counseling, I want to know what that counseling’s about and what’s going to go on. And then you could add on to that stuff, like what’s your right to know that the curriculum in your school is being used is actually evidence-based. That reading is being taught in a way that is evidence-based. What’s your right to know about sort of the qualifications of instructional staff? What’s your right to know about your student’s level of achievement and transparency? I mean these are things that like I think there’s an enormous sort of centrist consensus around a lot of these things. And the Democrats have just left the field kind of wide open, which it’s just sort of inexplicable.
Jim Cowen: We’re coming up on the end of the year. As we’re starting into 2023, where should the focus be?
Andy Rotherham: I mean, first the focus has to be, again, on recovery. This field can be really feckless. We’re still having arguments about, like you’ll be in meetings where somebody says learning loss. And instead of talking about, what the hell are we going to do to make up for these pandemic decisions that were made around policy and so forth that have so disadvantaged kids, it devolves into 20 minutes about whether you should call it learning loss or unfinished learning. I mean, if we just can’t name that this catastrophe unfolded how are we supposed to solve it?
And so, what needs to happen in 2023 is just a degree of seriousness. Spring of 2020 was an incredibly difficult and chaotic time. We didn’t understand what was going on with COVID. I think most people are like, everybody deserves a lot of grace for decisions that you had to close schools. I think there are few people arguing any kind of good faith who want to go back and like relitigate decisions that were made in March of 2020. We just didn’t know what was going on. It’s certainly not March of 2020 or April 2020 now. And it really wasn’t by like summer when you started to realize there was things you could do to help start to mitigate this and so forth. And there was still so little urgency, it became incredibly toxic. I mean go back and look at conversations on Twitter, like the things people were saying to each other about whether or not schools should reopen were just crazy. We need to have some grace, but we need to say there was a lack of urgency after summer of 2020 about how we are going to get schools, get education to kids, reopen, get content, deliver content to kids—particularly in places where that was not going to be able to happen effectively online. What kind of options need to be available? We’re still having, like rolling forward, still that sort of lack of urgency. So, we’ve got a lot of kids who are really behind that is not equally or equitably distributed. It’s kids who were furthest from opportunity before the pandemic are, in many cases, even further now. And you see that again and again in the data. You can say that everybody was affected. It was, but the effects were not equal. This was particularly low-income kids who are disproportionately likely, you know, Black and Hispanic kids, really took it on the chin in terms of decisions that were made and the education they delivered. We’ve got to get serious about addressing that or we will lose them. And this idea that you hear that, “oh, well, they learned more out of school” and all this is just ridiculous. We did not do what we need to do and are still not doing what we need to do to prepare these kids to have lives of agency and choice. And that is not going to show up immediately, but it will show up. It will show up over time. The data is really clear on this people, you know. Everybody’s looking at, where is that political urgency to get that right?
Jim Cowen: We had Kirsten Baesler from North Dakota on this podcast, and she brought up a really interesting program that they’re doing in North Dakota around board governance. And it is focused entirely on student outcomes. It is about helping new board members who have come in and are really good at getting elected but may not know how to jump into this job and where the majority of their time should be spent. And it’s really fascinating to hear how they are orienting these new board members into really developing goals that are focused entirely on student outcomes and metrics of success that the community decides and is based on the vision of the community that they’re serving. And I think, you know, it hits on what you’re saying about just focusing on the things that matter for kids to get them back on track and having that framework gives them a strong tool to throw out the things that are distracting in their work. We had to applaud. I don’t know if you’ve heard that or not.
Andy Rotherham: Yeah, I have. I think what she’s doing is terrific, just a very interesting leader on schools up there. You know there’s two schools of thought really about what should boards do, whether that’s local boards or state boards, and one of those schools of thought is sort of, you need to tell people a good story and a good political narrative that’s going to keep them bought in. They’re going to support public schools and that’s what’s going to get them to pay their taxes and send their kids and be supportive. And so, it’s a little bit of like don’t talk about the bad news, emphasize the good news, right? And you see this even pre-pandemic, when NAEP scores came out, if they weren’t great, you would still see these press releases where people would figure out the one green shoot and instead of talking about everything that was wrong, it would be like left-handed eighth grade Hispanic girls are up one point, you know, and that would be like the title of the press release. Meanwhile, most groups, you know, achievement’s down. And that’s sort of this public relations strategy to doing all this.
The other strategy, which is the one I’m obviously adhered to more is like just being realistic about achievement. I think you can’t fool people. You are better off leveling with them. They’re going to figure it out anyway, and they’re going to be twice as mad if they think you were not playing straight pool with them. There’s going to be even more of a backlash. And so, if you look at the problems we’re having after the pandemic, huge declines in enrollment and it doesn’t take much to destabilize finances. We’ve got this fiscal cliff coming, you’ve got this enormous problem with learning loss. Like we ought to level with people, not in a way that’s hysterical and trying to like, you know, create a crisis atmosphere. Just says here’s where things are, here’s what we’re doing, and so forth. I think that is actually healthier politics. If you care about the survivability and sustainability of public schools over time, that’s a better way to do it. But there’s a real disagreement. And so, I think what Baesler’s doing in terms of like helping train board members to think about this and communicate about this is really important.
I wish there was more training for board members. I hope it has not become ideological. I think it’ll be really unfortunate if we wind up with sort of a conservative and a liberal way to train board members. I think people are going to disagree on this stuff, but there’s like some best practices that should cut across political lines of difference that we should make sure people have. And then just again, that ethos question, like what is your job? Is it your job to sort of be a booster and an advocate, or to be a regulator? I think that’s a fundamental question you can train people on.
Jim Cowen: Yeah. I am excited to see this being approached from a, as you said, nonpartisan, non-ideological way. Like what are the blocking and tackling that needs to be done and in avoiding some of that.
Andy Rotherham: Yeah, and you asked like what’s going well. Also helping people realize there is stuff, I mean I get very frustrated with this sort of idea that nothing works, and that people are like, “oh my gosh, you know, I’ve been doing this for 30 or 40 years and nothing works.” That’s not true. You can see in the data there’s plenty of evidence of what works, policies, improvement in practice. I mean, lots of things. Standards in this country are like substantially better than they were 10, 15 years ago. We make progress, that’s not the issue. It’s figuring out where are we falling short, how to talk about that, how to learn about that and think about that. Where are examples that you can use? Like that’s more the conversation that does take, if you’re a new board member, someone new on these roles, that takes a degree of education and so forth, and we can help people up along on the learning curve with that.
Jim Cowen: You’ve written some pieces around the challenges and the silos that are occurring because of pandemic fatigue, and I hear about this effort at Bellwether called Assembly. What are you all doing with that? What is your hope for that effort?
Andy Rotherham: Thanks for asking. I didn’t even put you up to that, so I really appreciate you.
Jim Cowen: You didn’t even pay me for that.
Andy Rotherham: I really appreciate you asking. So yeah, look, you know, we talked earlier about ed tech and the effect on kids and screens and so forth, but I mean it hasn’t had a great effect on adults. We should probably name that as well. I mean, I think Twitter is like a reputation destroyer. In terms of you watch people on there who you thought were sort of serious people, and you see some of the stuff that gets said. And everyone’s in their silos. And this again was a pre pandemic problem but is definitely more acute. And so, the whole beta initiative is we’ve got these big structural problems, education redlining, which has, you know, really horrible roots in American history and is a contemporary problem in terms of school segregation. You have this inability of kids to navigate post-secondary options. We’re looking at one on school boards, what we were just talking about. Like making school boards much more broadly accessible to a wider cross section of Americans than can seriously consider school board service today.
And then this Assembly one, which is, we know how to wrap really good services around kids. The affluent do this all the time, packaging their kids up for college, you know, all of this. Like, why can’t we do that in a more equitable manner? And there’s examples of things that have, you know, done that. Like for example, when Jeb Bush was governor in Florida, he made SAT prep much more available. That’s a much more common strategy now. When he did it was more unusual. You know these ways to wrap, but we want to take it to a whole other level. How can you assemble fully an education around a kid with everything a parent needs to do that. So, information, navigation, transportation, all the infrastructure as well as like good providers of services and so forth. And this idea that a much more customized education has just enormous promise, but it is not equitably available at all right now, and it could be, and some of that is very much pandemic-informed in terms of what we saw with some of the services that sprung up, wraparound things, pods, stuff like that. But some it are these longer standing issues, and it’s a terrific sort of collision because you do have greater demand for choice coming out of the pandemic. You’ve seen enormous number of policy changes.
And so, all these things are sort of converging. And so, Assembly is giving us an opportunity to bring together really disparate people who often aren’t in the room together but share a goal of a more equitable and customized education. To work together, to figure out how do we go about doing that and what’s the policies that we need to support. And the coolest part about it—I know this is a long answer to a short question–but we’re very excited about it, is at the end of all of these different beta projects, there’s handoffs. So, we’re handing it off to people in the field to carry the work forward. Depending on the project, that’s going to be different kinds of entities or institutions or policy groups or whatever. But this isn’t about like Bellwether doing this stuff. We’re really good at designing, bringing it together, doing all that. We’re handing it off to leaders in the field to drive it forward and I think that’s just a really terrific impact strategy we’re very excited about.
Jim Cowen: Where can we learn more about that?
Andy Rotherham: At our website, so Bellwether.org/assembly or if you go there, you’ll see for Assembly. You can also, if you go to the Eduwonk blog, you can easily—eduwonk.com—find your way to Bellwether, or if you find me on Twitter at @ARotherham, you can also find your way very easily to Bellwether from there.
Jim Cowen: Andy, thanks for your time today. I appreciate it. So much happening and I think it is, it’s a tough time to be in education, but it’s an exciting time to be in education.
Andy Rotherham: Yeah, I agree, Jim. I don’t quite understand why people are so down. There’s just enormous potential and plenty of good examples. And honestly, I think the time we’re in, like you’re seeing a lot of subsurface conversations about some pretty incredible innovation. I get, you know, in my experience, sort of just when things seem like they’re bleak that’s because there’s actually cool stuff happening that’s just out of sight and then it pops up. And I’m aware of, you know, some of that stuff. I’m actually optimistic if we can get this political piece around demand right. I’m grateful, and I really mean this, to people like you who are just out there trying to continue to force that conversation, create that demand and are just sort of tirelessly staying at it. It’s great. So, it’s great to be with you today.
Jim Cowen: Thanks a lot. Hope you get more adventures and keep bringing those fish in.
Andy Rotherham: You as well. We need to find a time to wet a line around here together.
Jim Cowen: Definitely, definitely. Alright, thanks Andy. We’ll talk to you soon.
Andy Rotherham: Thank you.
Jim Cowen: This is Jim Cowen from The Collaborative for Student Success. Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery. Where each week, we showcase ways federal recovery funds are reshaping schools by talking to the people doing the hard work to educate America’s kids. Reach out to us at EduRecoveryHub.org/RouteK12 or follow us on Twitter at our handle @StudentSuccess.
About Jim Cowen
Jim is the the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit organization that defends strong K-12 policies that benefit all students.