Unlocking the Potential of Transitional Kindergarten Requires Better Data on Early Education

Summary

California is making a significant investment (estimated at $3 billion per year) in early childhood education by requiring school districts to offer transitional kindergarten (TK) to all 4-year-olds by the 2025–26 school year. This investment is crucial—research has shown that there can be many wide-ranging and long-term positive impacts of high-quality early education on student outcomes. Such outcomes, however, depend a great deal on program design. It is thus critical for us to have good data so that we can understand the effects and effectiveness of TK at both the state and district level. Specifically, we need good data on program characteristics and participation as well as on the trajectory of student outcomes post-TK in order to understand how TK programs can have the greatest impact on participating students and fulfill the promise of the state's investment.

Why California Should Retire the Free or Reduced-Price Meal Measure—and What the State Should Do Next

Commentary authors
Michelle Spiegel
Thurston Domina
Andrew Penner
Summary

In 2013–14, California enacted an ambitious—and essential—reform to improve educational equity by directing state resources to districts and schools that educate large numbers of economically disadvantaged students. The reform is called the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF); it allocates funding to school districts based on student characteristics such as socioeconomic status and provides greater flexibility to use the allocated funds than the previous school funding formula allowed. In addition to the LCFF, which is based on average daily attendance (ADA), districts receive funds based on the proportion of students they serve who are English learners, income eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and foster youth. The equity multiplier, a new policy passed in 2023, is designed to provide even more funding for disadvantaged students.

Why Aren’t Students Showing Up for School?

Understanding the Complexity Behind Rising Rates of Chronic Absenteeism
Commentary authors
Summary

The surge in chronic absenteeism among California students during the 2020–21 and 2021–22 school years was initially attributed, quite reasonably, to the challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic. There was optimism that these rates would eventually begin to decline as schools returned to normal. When new chronic absenteeism numbers came out in October—along with California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASSP) data for 2022–23—the findings indicated that rates are down from the soaring absenteeism of 2021–22; 25 percent of K–12 students in California schools were chronically absent in 2022–23, down from 30 percent the year before. However, more than three years after the initial onset of the pandemic, chronic absenteeism among California students is still double the rate of prepandemic levels, and there are no signs of this trend abating.

From Reactive to Proactive

Putting Districts in the AI Driver’s Seat
Commentary authors
Pat Yongpradit
Glenn Kleiman
Summary

Artificial intelligence (AI) encompasses a broad set of tools developed to perform tasks that have historically required human intelligence. The new generative AI tools, such as ChatGPT, are not programmed with a specific set of instructions; rather, they are trained on sets of data and algorithms that guide how they respond to prompts. We are increasingly using a range of AI tools—such as autopopulate suggestions, navigation systems, facial recognition on phones, and ChatGPT—in many aspects of our lives. Because of the prevalence and power of these tools, their rapid development, and their potential to be truly disruptive—in positive and negative ways—it is critical that school districts develop policies, guidelines, and supports for the productive use of AI in schools. Later in this commentary, we discuss many of the short-term positives and negatives of using AI in schools. The greatest impact of AI, however, is how it can transform teachers’ roles and student learning.

The Urgent Need to Update District Policies on Student Use of Artificial Intelligence in Education

Summary

During the 2022–23 school year, artificial intelligence (AI) evolved from an experimental technology few had heard of into readily available technology that has become widely used by educators and students. There are many ways educators can use AI that may positively revolutionize education to benefit classroom instruction, to support data use and analysis, and to aid in decision-making. The biggest potential upsides of AI for education will be accompanied by major disruptions, however, and districts will need time for thoughtful consideration to avoid some of the worst possible pitfalls. This commentary focuses not on how best to harness the potential of AI in education over the long term but instead on the urgent need for districts to respond to student use of AI. We argue that during summer 2023, districts should adopt policies for the 2023–24 school year that help students to engage with AI in productive ways and decrease the risk of AI-related chaos due to society’s inability to detect inappropriate AI use.

Chronic Absenteeism Post-Pandemic

Let’s Not Make This Our “New Normal”
Summary

Chronic absenteeism (when a student misses 10 percent or more of instructional days during the school year for any reason) has spiked by an alarming degree, increasing more than twofold statewide, from 14% in 2020–21 to 30% in 2021–22. This increased absenteeism during 2021–22 is, of course, not entirely surprising. When students returned to school after a year of pandemic-induced virtual learning in 2020–21, they were encouraged to stay home if they had any symptoms, and many students had to miss school to quarantine after an exposure to COVID-19. Even though the pandemic is largely behind us at this point, early warning signs show that we now face challenges with attendance that could persist into the long term; although data for the current school year (2022–23) will not be released at the state level until fall 2023, locally released data show that the patterns this year may be as worrisome as last. How do we urgently move the needle on our high rate of chronic absenteeism so that it does not become the new normal in our state?

California Test Scores Show the Devastating Impact of the Pandemic on Student Learning

Commentary authors
Summary

Recent test scores released by the California Department of Education highlight a concerning decline in student learning in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics across multiple grades since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Changes in enrollment and reduced testing numbers in certain grades pose challenges for direct year-over-year comparisons. Notable is a concerning drop in ELA performance for third graders, indicating potential setbacks in early literacy, while eighth graders show a significant decline in math proficiency. These declines were pervasive among various student groups, with economically disadvantaged, Black, and English learner students particularly affected. District-level analyses underscored variations in performance changes, with economically disadvantaged districts experiencing larger declines, though some managed to improve. The impact of COVID-related disruptions on these groups, coupled with pre-existing disparities, intensified learning setbacks. These findings highlight the urgent need for educational transformation, emphasizing equity and addressing persistent disparities in California's education system.

Supporting Principals

Commentary authors
Tomika Romant
Summary

School principals faced an uphill battle during the pandemic, juggling the shift to virtual learning, navigating COVID-related challenges, and grappling with staff shortages upon returning to in-person classes. Many are now contemplating leaving their positions due to overwhelming stress and inadequate support. The focus isn't just on getting through the pandemic but on understanding how to effectively support principals for better teaching and learning quality. Conversations and research highlight three vital aspects: schools need robust external support networks to address diverse student and staff needs beyond campus; principals must be enabled to concentrate on teaching instead of administrative COVID-related tasks; and fostering collaboration among principals through peer-to-peer learning networks provides essential knowledge and support. Moving forward, California's investment in education presents an opportunity to alleviate the burden on principals, but it's crucial to establish continuous learning structures and support systems to maximize these resources. Policymakers should prioritize supporting principals to ensure their roles remain challenging yet manageable, ultimately benefitting students and their overall academic experience.

The Importance of Formative Evaluation in California’s Universal Pre–K Rollout

Commentary authors
Anna J. Markowitz
Jade V. Marcus Jenkins
Summary

California’s plan to expand Transitional Kindergarten (TK) into a universal pre-K program for all four-year-olds is a significant investment in children and families. To ensure its success, the state should learn from research on other state pre-K programs and invest in a research infrastructure for formative evaluation. Evidence from various states, including California's TK program, highlights the benefits of quality pre-K, but challenges in implementation exist. A crucial study on Tennessee’s Statewide Voluntary Pre-K (TN-VPK) showed mixed outcomes, revealing the complexities of scaling such programs. The TN-VPK study faced limitations in data collection, making it challenging to link classroom features to children’s outcomes. California must fund a research system for ongoing data collection at the child, classroom, and school level to evaluate the implementation of its universal pre-K program. This infrastructure should focus on structural classroom features, classroom interactions, children’s experiences, and details about where children spend their non-school hours. Such an approach allows for continuous improvement and learning from both successes and challenges encountered during implementation. This investment will be crucial for California's universal pre-K program to create a high-quality educational system for its children.

Strong, Collaborative Labor–Management Relations Can Move Postpandemic Education Forward

Commentary author
Summary

The past 18 months have presented unprecedented challenges for education. As schools gear up for the new academic year, decisions made now will shape the recovery from the pandemic. Collaboration between districts and teacher unions holds the potential to steer education into a stronger future. Although the pandemic strained some labor–management relationships, a California study found that many districts and unions worked collaboratively to address challenges during the crisis. As education moves forward, several key areas need attention: approaching problems collaboratively, prioritizing equity, smart allocation of resources, considering staffing needs, ensuring school safety, and potentially empowering school-level labor–management teams. These steps are vital for a robust recovery and the creation of an education system grounded in fairness and effective learning.

Improving Services for Students with Disabilities

The Opportunity and the Risk of Inaction
Commentary author
Elizabeth Kozleski
Summary

Students with disabilities faced immense challenges during the pandemic, encountering disruptions in specialized services, heightened anxiety, and remote learning difficulties. These issues have raised concerns about potential legal actions as parents seek additional support to compensate for lost learning opportunities. California's special education system is contending with the aftermath, reporting disruptions in crucial services like speech therapy and struggles in delivering effective online education for students with disabilities. The potential influx of legal cases demanding compensation for missed services could overwhelm already strained systems. To address these concerns, proactive engagement with families, early intervention, and bolstered dispute resolution processes are essential. Legislation such as AB 967 proposes to strengthen these systems, aiming for equity and providing families with avenues for recourse, offering a path towards a more robust and responsive special education system in California post-pandemic.

Unprecedented Times Provide Unprecedented Opportunity

Suburban Superintendents Reflect and Reimagine
Commentary authors
Sara Noguchi
Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and worsened existing inequities in suburban schools across California. These inequities encompass varying educational opportunities, outcomes, and disparities in basic needs. In districts like Modesto City Schools and Ontario-Montclair School District (OMSD), the crisis unveiled issues such as food insecurity, lack of technology access, and disparities in extracurricular activities, exacerbating the preparation and opportunity gaps. However, this crisis has also spurred a readiness for change and opportunities to address these disparities. It has prompted educators and community partners to reimagine schooling with equity as a focal point, aided by federal and state funds for relief efforts. Both districts are leveraging these funds to address digital divides, expand mental health support, redesign educational programs, and enhance staff services. They aim to sustain these changes by advocating for flexibility in spending and funding mechanisms tailored to local needs, recognizing the necessity for ongoing support beyond the pandemic. Looking forward, district leaders envision a transformed education landscape that celebrates diversity and prioritizes equity.

Implementing a Restorative Restart by Planning for the Four Ts

Time, Talent, Training, and Technology/Materials
Commentary authors
Summary

Schools are preparing for full in-person instruction amid ongoing pandemic challenges, emphasizing the urgency of addressing heightened student academic and wellness needs. State and federal funding provide unprecedented resources to aid recovery and transformation. PACE's recent report, "Restorative Restart: The Path Towards Reimagining and Rebuilding Schools," offers 14 action areas to address students' holistic needs, focusing on relationships, wellness, and engagement. To support planning and budgeting for a restorative restart, the report introduces the "Four Ts" framework: Time (extending instructional hours, planning time), Talent (adding staff to support students), Training (professional development for new approaches), and Technology/Materials (ensuring equitable access to devices and tools). The framework, adaptable to local needs, aids in discussions and planning for districts to implement restorative actions effectively while aligning with the report's action areas.

Utilizing COVID-19 Recovery Funds to Serve English Learners in California

Commentary author
Oscar Jiménez-Castellanos
Summary

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected English learners (ELs) across participation rates, learning setbacks, health concerns, and parental disconnection. California's plan to reopen K–12 schools in fall 2021 coincides with a $15.3 billion influx from the American Rescue Plan to assist in reopening safely and address student needs. Each district must outline their use of these funds by June 1, 2021, with 20 percent dedicated to tackling learning loss. To benefit ELs, ten evidence-based recommendations are proposed. These include comprehensive fund use, leveraging cultural assets, tailored support, high-quality programs addressing language and culture, multilingual health services, parent engagement, educator training, reduced class sizes, and hybrid learning models. The piece emphasizes learning from past funding mistakes to provide progressive and equitable education for all, emphasizing the diverse needs of ELs in California's public schools.

Cost-Effectiveness Analysis Can Help Districts Plot Their Financial Course

Summary

The recent influx of federal and state funds presents a critical yet time-sensitive challenge for California's school districts. While these funds offer relief for pandemic-related financial strains, they are temporary and demand strategic utilization. Leveraging previous planning experiences such as the Local Control Accountability Plans, district leaders can establish clear objectives and allocate budgets effectively. Employing cost-effectiveness analysis is paramount, guiding decisions to ensure the most impactful interventions while minimizing waste. This approach, outlined in a PACE report, involves evaluating various investment options against their costs and potential impacts. However, applying this analysis requires strategic selection, focusing on substantial investments and genuine alternative options. The aim is to maximize outcomes from these funds, addressing immediate needs while aiming for sustainable, long-term benefits beyond the pandemic recovery period.

Serving Students Experiencing Homelessness During the Pandemic

Commentary authors
Margaret Olmos
Ali Bloomgarden
Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic worsened the educational challenges for homeless students, disproportionately impacting Black and Latinx youth. Despite efforts like Project Roomkey providing temporary shelter, transitional-age students faced barriers accessing education and support services. Collaboration between schools and expanded learning partners offers a path forward. Recommendations include developing trust-based multigenerational support, addressing educational gaps among homeless youth, and creating personalized learning hubs. Centralized support programs, such as Berkeley Unified School District's HOPE, and leveraging expanded learning staff to identify and support homeless students are crucial. Reimagining student transportation and fostering inter-agency collaborations are key steps toward providing comprehensive and equitable support to homeless students and families. Strengthening partnerships between schools and expanded learning programs remains essential to redefine educational support for homeless students beyond traditional classroom settings.

Reenvisioning Learning for Students with Learning Differences

Opportunities for Expanded Learning Partnerships
Commentary authors
Amy Andersen
Tamara Clay
Heather DiFede
Summary

COVID-19 amplified the challenges for students with learning differences during distance learning, prompting the implementation of in-person or hybrid special education services. Yet, these adaptations diverge from conventional methods, necessitating innovative solutions. Collaborating with expanded learning partners offers a broader approach beyond crisis teaching, aiming for comprehensive support. Key strategies involve sharing training resources, prioritizing universally accessible learning environments, and restructuring the school day to better suit individual needs. However, barriers to collaboration persist, including funding misalignments and compliance concerns within existing regulations like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Addressing these challenges requires policy adjustments, collaborative platforms, and interagency agreements to ensure cohesive support for students with disabilities across different learning environments.

Expanded Learning Partnerships to Help Reinvent School for Upper Grade Students

Commentary authors
Robert Canosa-Carr
Brad Lupien
Summary

In response to the educational challenges posed by COVID-19, a partnership between The Accelerated Schools (TAS) and the expanded learning provider, arc, aimed to revamp learning strategies for older students in South Los Angeles. Recognizing the inadequacy of a one-size-fits-all model, they reimagined a student-centered approach tailored to address the complex needs of older students in a virtual learning setting. Amidst pandemic disruptions, they observed that older students, often juggling familial and economic responsibilities, struggled with remote learning. The collaboration utilized a mix of synchronous and asynchronous models, leveraging community-based organizations (CBOs) to reinforce instructional content, support student needs, and enhance engagement. Lessons highlighted the need for robust collaboration between schools and CBOs, shared grading systems for consistency, and ongoing student input in shaping educational strategies. Their experience underscored the value of this partnership in creating innovative, adaptable learning approaches that better serve students during unprecedented times.

Compassionate Partnerships for Youth in Foster Care

The Role of Expanded Learning
Commentary authors
Michelle Francois
Margaret Olmos
Summary

The commentary is a guidebook for districts, schools, and expanded learning providers in better serving California's 60,000 foster care youth amid the pandemic. For these vulnerable youth, COVID-19 worsened existing trauma, isolation, and educational disruptions due to frequent home and school changes. Collaboration among public systems and community partners is crucial to create caring systems acknowledging individual strengths and needs. To bolster pandemic recovery, the approach should prioritize tailored programs by consulting foster youth about their needs, amplifying community expertise, employing staff knowledgeable about schools, and ensuring accessible health services and multilingual resources. Creativity, flexibility, and continuous learning are vital in addressing the immediate and long-term needs of foster care youth, emphasizing constant evaluation through their perspectives for effective support.

COVID-19 and the Educational Equity Crisis

Evidence on Learning Loss From the CORE Data Collaborative
Commentary authors
Summary

The impact of the pandemic on California students' learning, gauged from 18 school districts in the CORE Data Collaborative, highlights significant learning loss in English Language Arts (ELA) and Math, primarily affecting younger grades. The equity gap is pronounced, notably among low-income students and English language learners (ELLs), experiencing more substantial setbacks than their counterparts. Socioeconomically disadvantaged students faced slower growth, while others accelerated their learning, intensifying existing achievement disparities. Upper-grade ELLs encountered severe setbacks due to challenges in virtual language development. These findings underscore the urgent need for targeted support to redress these disparities, emphasizing the gravity of unequal experiences during the pandemic. Yet, data limitations call for deeper investigations into absent student groups to refine learning loss estimates. Addressing this crisis necessitates a student-centric approach, prioritizing social-emotional well-being and systemic educational reforms to accommodate diverse student needs.

Environmental Education and Nature-Rich Experiences

Essential for Youth and Community Well-Being During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond
Commentary authors
Nicole M. Ardoin
Alison W. Bowers
Summary

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, environmental education faces severe risks, jeopardizing its role in student development. Approximately 11 million US students could lose access to crucial outdoor learning experiences, raising concerns about the field's future. Pandemic-driven safety priorities led schools to sideline environmental education, often perceived as non-essential. However, research underscores nature's vital role in physical, emotional, and intellectual growth, particularly crucial during the pandemic's isolating measures. California's wildfires compounded these challenges by limiting outdoor access. Environmental education offers rich stimuli for children's development, fostering resilience and learning. Integrating outdoor experiences, even amid remote learning, is crucial, especially for young learners. Environmental educators possess the expertise to reimagine learning, suggesting restorative nature experiences, supporting families in outdoor learning, and restructuring educational norms. Leveraging their skills can redefine schooling, emphasizing outdoor classrooms and partnerships with local resources. Despite being seen as a luxury, environmental education is vital, nurturing well-being, resilience, and a positive future amid crisis. Experts advocate for environmental educators' pivotal role in shaping a brighter, nature-rich future, especially crucial during this transformative educational phase.

Schools Should Consider Multigenerational Households in Reopening Plans

Commentary authors
Summary

In California, over 700,000 individuals reside in multigenerational households, an essential consideration for educators and policymakers, particularly during the pandemic and potential school reopenings. Research underscores the impact of diverse household structures on families' decisions regarding students returning to school. With a significant portion of students living with elderly family members, concerns arise about their education and health risks. Urban districts, particularly in southern California, serve substantial populations in multigenerational settings, as indicated by data from the American Community Survey. The top five districts housing such households show a higher representation of Latinx and low-income students, hinting at potential socio-economic and demographic trends. Importantly, students with greater educational needs might hesitate to return to physical classrooms due to residing with vulnerable family members, posing a challenge for districts in designing equitable and safe reopening strategies. Policymakers and districts are urged to identify these students, offering tailored support and allocating additional resources to address health risks and ensure continued learning in an environment responsive to diverse household compositions and concerns amid the pandemic's uncertainties.

A Tiered Approach to Ensuring Students Are Present, Engaged, and Supported in the 2020–21 School Year

Commentary authors
Cecelia Leong
Summary

Educators throughout California are deeply engaged in strategizing to bolster student attendance, whether in remote or in-person learning setups. Addressing absenteeism, they highlight the absence of conducive learning conditions and advocate for increased support, especially for students facing challenges like internet access or COVID-related trauma. Emphasizing a non-punitive stance, this commentary introduces a multi-tiered strategy, categorizing interventions into three tiers based on students' needs. It stresses data-driven decision-making, proactive outreach, tech assistance, expanded learning programs, mentoring, mental health services, and personalized attendance plans as pivotal elements. Tailored interventions for varying levels of absenteeism (Tiers 2 and 3) encompass tech support, expanded learning programs, mentoring, mental health services, and personalized attendance plans. The authors underscore early identification of at-risk students while advocating collaborations with community agencies for extensive support, punctuating the importance of engaging students, families, and communities in crafting solutions amid the pandemic's challenges.