Season 2, Episode 6: Measuring Student Recovery
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’re holding up the best examples with the hope that those practices are repeated in other schools.
Our guest today is Kent McGuire, the program Director of Education at the William and Flora Hewlett foundation. Kent has served as president and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation. He was Dean of the College of Education at Temple University. He was an education program officer at both the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Lili Endowment. He also served as the assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. Kent, you’ve been a warrior for public education. Thank you for that work and thank you for joining me here today.
Kent McGuire: Glad to be here, Jim.
Jim Cowen: So, we are back from the holidays, right? We are marching smartly into 2023. I’m just curious from you, how do you feel about 2022? What are you sort of taking away from it as we start this new year? Are there some things that give you hope? Are there some things that are keeping you up at night? I just would like to give you the floor just off the bat to give me your take.
Kent McGuire: Well, the first thing I want to say is as the year drew to a close, Jim, I was genuinely tired, nearly exhausted. I mean, that’s the first thing I want to say. And, if I could feel that way, imagine how people out in the real world on the front lines [feel]. I think that includes school superintendents, chief state school officers, school administrators, and certainly teachers and other educators. And it’s just hard for me to imagine that. And here we’re sort of at the halfway point, I suppose—I’m a glass half full kind of guy, and so I am hopeful as we go into 2023 and beyond, that there are things we’ve started to make sense of in terms of what the kids have been through and more sense of the kinds of things we’ll want and need to do to sort of help them rebound, you know, from perhaps the most challenging couple of years.
You know, if we jump too quickly to calling the question on recovery, because there’s still a lot of money sitting out there in the system…
Jim Cowen: Yes, there is.
Kent McGuire: Right? And I worry about how well these resources will be deployed. All the constraints associated there with—I think the truth of the matter is that probably more money has actually been spent than we are publicly aware of. The other reality is that less money has been spent than probably needs to be in order to make the progress we need to make. So those kinds of dynamics give me pause. And finally, I worry a little bit that the political context—I just would love for things to calm down, right? And I’m not sure that they will. And I would love for education to be less politicized. It’s too big a system for politics not to be a part of it. I’m not naïve, but I’d like the temperature to come down enough so that people don’t feel like they have to run for cover out there and can in fact, think big thoughts, use their imaginations well, and maybe, you know, try some things. You know, if there was ever a moment where we need to be open to a little more imagination and boldness, we’re in it.
And so, it’s that sort of the interplay between politics and the kind of leadership and bold action that worries me though. So, I hope that as we go into the year, maybe there are enough of us that sort of try to clear that space, or at least speak to the need for it, that our leaders and our educators feel like we have their backs, or they at least enjoy some measure of cover.
Jim Cowen: I share your feeling of exhaustion after 2022. I think definitely our team here feels that and senses that from across the education field. I think given some of the things that you were saying about feeling like there is this politicization of actions that creates this kind of concern about being too bold and creating too much distraction in those actions. The whole idea of this podcast, as you know, is about how we’re going into states and identifying what we think are hopeful things and bold things that will make a difference. We’ve had people like Kirsten Baesler from North Dakota has been here to talk about school board governance. Great program that they’ve got going on. We’ve had Mohammed Choudhury from Maryland here talking about some of the teacher support efforts that they’ve got going on. We’ve had Charlene Russell-Tucker from Connecticut here talking about really great work that they’re doing with a research collaborative that’s data-focused and trying to identify with very strong intent and transparency which of the investments really are cutting through the chaff and making a difference. Those are some of the great examples that we’ve seen. As we’re starting to look at that, I’m curious from you, how should we be judging success because we’re trying to consider now, at this next stage of what we’ve got going on with the recovery hub, which things should we continue to follow because we have hope that these are the ones that are really going to make a difference? And those can be replicated in states. Are there some metrics, or are there some success points that you think are most important to help kids succeed?
Kent McGuire: I’ll do what people in philanthropy can get away with. You know, we sometimes offer, you know, sort of lofty and ponderous answers to those kinds of questions. But, so for example, although I actually think, you know, this would be a big deal, it would be great it seems to me if students were feeling better, and, you know, what’s that mean? It means that they were safer, you know, less anxious, more confident, had a sense of agency and purpose and so I do think it behooves us to figure out ways of probing for that. Particularly, Jim, given some of the data we have about the just, the emotional stressors and anxieties that beset our students over the last couple of years. We’re getting a briefing here in another week or two from an organization called Youth Truth, which for us and others does a lot of surveying of students in terms of how they experience school. And we pick up a lot of information there that underscores the fact that, you know, the kids and the adults have been through quite a bit. So, measuring that stuff, or including, having an interest in that kind of information, I think will still be important, you know, this year and, you know, and next. At the same time, I’m going to continue to be a strong advocate for a blend of assessment information. You know, I wish we would give more credence to spend more time reporting on the kind of through-year diagnostic assessments that maybe tell us where we need to focus. They give us a better real time sense of who’s learning what and where we might have some particular challenges that we need to put our heads together to solve and how we need to focus. But the end-of-year assessments matter too. You know, that’s what tells us if we’re actually making progress year to year. And you know, I’m optimistic that there’ll come a time when we’ll actually figure out how to connect those two ways of knowing, because I think having a better balance between the two, Jim, might help the system make more consistent progress.
Jim Cowen: You are not a stranger to the world of the policy surrounding the National Assessment for Educational Progress, or NAEP. And as we saw last year, you know, the NAEP scores were not good. And from my organization’s standpoint, we were hoping states may have maybe shown a little more sense of urgency around those results in identifying the investments that they were making. How are they going to address those scores, right?
So, let me ask you, given that old hat that you had from your work on the board, what role do you think that exam should play? And given what you just said about, you know, like maybe finding a rhythm between NAEP and state assessments, where do you think we should go from there? What are you hopeful for?
Kent McGuire: So, look, on the one hand, I actually think that, you know, NAEP, in its various forms represents maybe the best truly comparative measure available to us, right? And so, for that reason, it does seem to me that it’s the kind of thing that we want our policy officials to pay serious and ongoing attention to. And so, when the data reveals the presence of a pretty dramatic drop, it should get our attention and it should give us pause that I actually think is real.
What we don’t want is for folks to sort of lose their minds and just jump to the conclusion that all is lost. What we do want is, to your point, to really bring forward a sense of urgency about how important it really is now to focus on things that’ll help kids rebound and ratchet up their learning. I might have been looking for more conversation in response to these data, I’ll say it like that, than I think I saw or heard. But I guess the moral of the story is what we should conclude, it seems to me, is we’re potentially at risk and that the idea that we could lose 20 years of progress in a fortnight is a big deal, right? And so, shouldn’t we put our heads together to think even harder and more imaginatively about what it might actually take to get those gains back? Now, I made a point, one of the last times I was with you that we probably were slipping in terms of that progress even before the pandemic. That’s part of what I mean, Jim, by what’s the contest that gets set as these data are released. I wouldn’t assign all of what we saw in the NAEP data to the pandemic. That’s my point.
Jim Cowen: Yeah. I think that’s totally fair, and I think from our standpoint too, like we recognize we’re sitting at cheap seats compared to the leaders and the principles and the district leaders that are dealing with this on a day-by-day basis, and we are very empathetic to that. And personally, I have no idea the pressures that are felt in those items, and dealing with, you know, with the day-to-day demands of having those roles. So, I think you’re right about, you know, trying to find that balance.
So, I do know, Kent, the Hewlett Foundation has prioritized teaching and learning as a focus point, what are some of those successes that you’re seeing? I assume you’re kind of alluding to some of that right now.
Kent McGuire: Yes, lots of things. I mean, I, sort of as a principal, I’d argue that one thing that has emerged is helping folks think about, look, you have this sustainability problem with the recovery dollars, right? There’s this cliff, you know, at some point. And so, a big question is what moves can you make in the short run that you could figure out how to sustain over time, you know, with the resources that you’re going to have. So, I think [we] found some examples of where some of our district partners have made investments in professional learning to help people focus on new roles and responsibilities, Jim, that allow them to think about working in different ways organizationally. We have examples where, Baltimore’s a good case, folks have learned how to deploy their most skillful teachers differently. Now I think of it as raising class size instead of lowering it because of the ability to stay with some of the hybrid designs that they had to experiment with during the pandemic. They’ve held onto some of those and tried to normalize them. I think a big one has been, you know, the districts realized that they were giving short shrift to the assets and capacities of community organizations or of higher ed. And, well, let me say it differently, put it more in the context of recovery. Not all learning happens in school and that we should learn how to give more credit in credence to the opportunities kids have to learn things outside school. The longer-term policy question it begs is, “okay, well how do we give credits for that?” So, there’s work going on to figure out how to normalize some of that, and then I think the, maybe the biggest and most widespread change or shift that we have seen is there came a point in which folks, because they weren’t in school, you know, schools didn’t know how they were doing. And so, this sort of getting better data on how kids are experiencing it has given rise to trying to figure out, well, now that we know this, you know, what do we change so that we get the kind of longer-term motivation and engagement that we need to see, and what kinds of things can we do differently? Particularly for secondary school kids, you know, some of whom we’ve had a hard time getting them back, right? $18 an hour at Amazon suddenly, you know, looks pretty good if the alternative isn’t very interesting, right? So, there’s a long way to go here. But you know, we have been, I think, pleasantly surprised, I’ll say it that way by some of the things folks have learned, have decided to keep doing or are trying to figure out how to do to create a different kind of experience for kids on the back end of this than they had on the front end.
Jim Cowen: You wrote a piece recently where you were talking about the need to expand students critical thinking rather than restricting what they learn. What do you think teachers, just educators in general, should do given the political sort of hot potato that this has become to navigate those waters?
Kent McGuire: Yeah. So, when I wrote that piece, let me just say, I was trying to figure out, you know, how not to be part of the problem, right? But rather part of the solution. And so, for me, this is yet another example of trying to be for something as opposed to against something. And then I said you can’t ask teachers to do more of something that we want if we’re not prepared to help them with it. Right, right? And so, the next thing I want to say is, and this goes back to my first point in your earlier question about investments in professional learning, so let me say again, those are the kinds of investments you can use those certain resources on to help adults get better at something. In addition to trying to hire more people, I’ve got to help the ones I have get better at what they do, right? So, here’s another case of that and helping them become more culturally competent is a part of overcoming this. Now, none of us want to sort of ask people to have their heads chopped off and taking personal risk. And we have data that’s telling us or revealing to us how this has put some classroom teachers at personal risk—you know, some of the worst of what we see out there. But all I’m asking for or suggesting, in addition to reading the article, is that teachers are honest with their students. That’s our ask really; is for teachers to be thoughtful and critical thinkers and problem solvers themselves.
So, I do want to go back and put one more concern on the table and I don’t want to end this way, but I want to put the concern on the table. Right about the time the recovery funds have been exhausted, I think there will be a really unanswered question about the health of state economies and therefore their appropriations for schools and I would, it would be a shame if, you know, as we hit this wall on the recovery funds, we run smack dab into a moment where state appropriations go down. And some attention to how to work around or through that, Jim, I think is needed or at least some attention to how likely that might be, so that it is yet another thing we can plan for. You know, the harder the Fed works on putting the brakes on the economy, you know, one of the ripple effects of that might actually be that we hit a small recession that, you know, really works against us. I’m worried about that, but I meant to speak to that way back when you asked me am I worried about anything in you know, 2023 or beyond. That’s the thing I worry the most about. The thing that I am actually most encouraged by is that there is a genuine spirit, a genuine sentiment in the ecosystem for wanting to do things in new and different ways than prior to COVID.
Jim Cowen: Let me just say thank you for your time today. I think your comments are spot on and useful and I’m excited that you’re continuing to be in the space, Kent. So, thanks for coming out today. We appreciate it.
Kent McGuire: Thank you for having me and this was fun to do.
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.