Reporters who cover education have little trust in education companies, compared to other sources of information they have to choose from, a survey finds.
Many states have taken a cautious approach to reopening schools for in-person instruction during the pandemic. Florida was much more ambitious.
The vast majority of school districts across the nation’s third most populous state were required by the state’s department of education to offer an in-person learning option at the beginning of the academic year. That meant the state’s 67 main, county-based districts were tasked with finding a way to serve not only families who wanted face-to-face instruction, but also those who chose online instruction at home.
As such, Florida’s experiences offer a preview of what an increasing number of school districts around the country are now going through, as they transition into more fully in-person and hybrid instructional models. A new special report, available exclusively to EdWeek Market Brief members, provides education companies and other organizations keen on working in Florida with an in-depth look at the biggest needs that the state’s 67 school districts face, as they continue to straddle the brick-and-mortar and online learning worlds.
Through our reporting and analysis, readers will learn about Florida school systems’ hunger for academic interventions and other strategies to address learning loss, and their need to bolster the well-being of students whose emotional states have been made fragile by the upheaval of COVID-19.
Readers will get districts’ perspectives on the massive scale of their device purchasing over the past year, and prevailing worries about lackluster internet connectivity in students’ homes. And they will learn about the pressure Florida districts face to implement new state academic standards — and to scaffold myriad instructional materials, assessments, and professional development for teachers on top of those standards.
This special report is the final installment in a three-part series on state markets that have enormous importance for companies in the K-12 market. The first two reports focused on Texas and California. This report, like the others, includes original research drawn from surveys of Florida K-12 officials. But the heart of the analysis is interviews EdWeek Market Brief’s editorial team conducted with key district administrators, including superintendents and their top deputies, curriculum directors, finance officials, and others.
Student Engagement, Standards, and Remediation
The Florida report includes perspectives of district officials like Robert Bixler, the associate superintendent for curriculum and digital learning in the Orange County school system, based in Orlando.
Bixler explains how his district began turning its attention to students’ anticipated learning loss as early as last summer, offering targeted academic programs and focusing on students thought to be most vulnerable, particularly in elementary grades.
Since then, the 212,000-student district has been exploring strategies for remediation that can be delivered in a variety of in-person and online settings.
“You are always concerned about the kids who are most at risk and what they’re missing in school,” Bixler said. “We’re all trying to find ways to meet their needs–with intervention, tutoring, all those things.”
Among the other insights offered in the report:
- Survey data collected from Florida K-12 officials about their top academic priorities over the next year – which include both instructional and non-academic needs.
- Perspective on the key factors that will drive Florida district officials’ decisions on selection and purchasing of curriculum and other academic resources to align with new state academic standards.
- Details on the current blend of in-person vs. remote instruction in Florida districts, and their plans for offering summer instruction focused on learning loss.
- The results of in-depth interviews with district officials from across the state about their biggest needs from vendors, the state policies shaping their work, how they plan to spend federal funding.
Another major school system highlighted in the report, the Palm Beach County district, is – like many in Florida — trying to navigate two different worlds, with about 50 percent of its students taking classes in person, and remainder working remotely.
Teachers have found “unbelievable and inspiring” ways to help students and encourage them to think creatively in online settings, particularly through technology, said Deputy Superintendent and Chief of Schools Keith Oswald.
But the 193,000-student district needs more innovation and flexibility from education companies, to keep students locked in no matter what their learning environment.
“Engagement has been our number-one priority,” he said. Every day the district looks for “little things that can enhance how [tech] is used in this environment,” and vendors who can “enhance what students do in a distance learning space.”
EdWeek Market Brief members can access the report here.
Image by Getty
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The Biden administration’s recent guidance for how states should carry out federally mandated tests is likely to have implications for the testing industry, potentially affecting everything from the work required to design the exams to scheduling them to companies’ bottom lines.
In a letter to states, the U.S. Department of Education this week informed states that they won’t be allowed to cancel federally mandated standardized exams this school year — unlike last spring, when they were given the right to shelve end-of-year exams.
But the agency gave states the right to propose shortened versions of state exams in English/language arts, math, and science, and is allowing them to delay the assessments, potentially even until next school year.
Typically, test scoring is done over a three-week time period, but a longer testing window increases the chances that the process becomes less efficient, which could raise test providers’ costs, said Barry Topol, managing partner of Assessment Solutions Group. His organization provides assessment cost, management and state accountability systems analysis and consulting to states and other entities.
“The big costs of scoring are the variable costs of monitoring those [test] raters and readers, and training them and having them score,” he said in an interview with EdWeek Market Brief.
Though the department’s letter to states said it won’t invite state requests for blanket waivers of assessments akin to the broad waivers issued by the department last spring, the agency did say it will allow states to seek waivers from federal requirements for school accountability, which would include a waiver from the requirement that states test 95 percent of eligible students, as my Education Week colleagues reported Monday.
And despite the department’s decision to not invite applications for broad assessment waivers, states could still seek them.
For instance, Pennsylvania state lawmakers on Wednesday asked the Biden administration to waive assessment requirements this year because of the pandemic.
Reworking State Contracts
If states take advantage of the administration’s permission to delay this year’s assessments, that could increase logistical and hiring costs for assessment providers.
Asked whether longer testing windows would make it more difficult to efficiently hire test scorers for this cycle, Cambium Assessment President Steve Kromer said the scenario is one that the company can adapt to meet. Scorers are generally receptive, he said, to offers to extend their contracts if necessary.
Cambium Assessment currently has 27 different contracts with states for summative types of assessments, and provides mostly computer-based tests, he said.
As there were last year, there could be contract renegotiations between Cambium and its customers as these states explore the possibilities of delaying or modifying aspects of this year’s tests, Kromer said.
“We would need to understand what the impact of a change would be, in terms of how we adjust our capacity based on our anticipated volumes of helpdesk calls and volumes of computer-based tests,” Kromer said. “We’re going to — as any business — look at adjustments to our capacity.”
If assessment providers are administering tests remotely, an extended test window could place additional cost burdens by requiring extensions of leases for test facilities and computers, Topol said.
On the other hand, if states desire shorter assessments, it could challenge companies to quickly compress the length of these exams while still ensuring the tests are still robust, Topol said.
“One way to do it would be to eliminate those constructed response items, but then you’ve got some issues with are you providing adequate content coverage?” he said. “The later in the school year… that you do that, the faster the vendors have to respond, the more expensive it is, and the more you introduce more chances for human error somewhere in the process.”
Cambium Assessment’s revenue took a hit when standardized tests were canceled last year. The company could sustain some revenue impacts this cycle as well, potentially associated with longer testing windows and modifying test structures, Kromer said.
But other costs could fall, Kromer said.
“You may not have to pay the cost to have [physical test books] taken to one of the states and have all those test books delivered and pick them back up,” he said. “There are costs that would go away.”
Investors are putting a premium on companies that have the products and expertise to span distance learning and a return to in-person lessons.
A presidential executive order tasking the U.S. Department of Education to collect data to inform K-12 school reopenings could provide companies across the market with a window into districts’ most urgent needs.
Data on attendance, funding priorities, public and charter school enrollment, teacher vaccination rates, assessment scores, and learning loss were among the areas that education advocates and company officials interviewed by EdWeek Market Brief said they would like to see the department collect when it implements the directives of the Jan. 21 executive order.
Among other things, the executive order instructs the Secretary of Education to coordinate with the department’s director of the Institute of Education Sciences to facilitate collection of “data necessary to fully understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and educators, including data on the status of in-person learning.”
The order calls for consultation with students, educators, unions, families, and state and local officials.
It would be difficult to glean a nationally representative sample of districts as they address challenges posed by the coronavirus, but the forthcoming data could help vendors improve their offerings to better fit district needs, said Reg Leichty, a founding partner of the education consulting group Foresight Law+Policy.
For example, detailed information on absentee rates and anticipated learning losses in reading, math, and other areas, could help companies better support teachers and students, he said.
“If we’re able to gather data about why students aren’t attending school, and it turns out to be something like broadband connectivity — which we know to be a problem — basically that’s a signal to companies that provide those services” that schools need what they’re offering.
In collecting attendance and assessment data, it will be important to pull in granular information about the student’s learning setting—whether it be virtual or in person—and to correlate those data with that student’s assessment scores, said Angela Jerabek, executive director of the BARR Center, a company that trains school staffs on relationship-building and school-level data collection and contextualization.
If the Biden administration can correlate those two data points, it will help contextualize the factors behind students’ learning progression or regression, she said.
Before IES collects the data, the agency will have to provide federal notice of its intent to survey states for new information.
Once IES provides notice, the federal comment period can take 30-60 days, meaning it could be at least a month after today before the education department starts collecting data.
Spending Needs, Other Than PPE
Kate Topping, vice president of marketing and communications at NWEA, said she would like to see the department collect data on public K-12 enrollment declines as well as charter school enrollment.
One big question is whether the rising interest in charters and private schools during COVID will continue, or whether parents have been sending their kids to these institutions merely because that was the only way to ensure their children would receive in-person instruction, Topping said.
It would also be helpful to know how increased spending on cleaning products for districts, across the board, may have diminished their ability to spend in other areas, she said.
NWEA did its own analysis of district funding priorities, and hand sanitizer, Wi-Fi hot spots, and student devices were all near the top of the list, Topping said.
“Those are the basic needs,” she said, “and then what will they take beyond that?”
In addition to instructional data, data on staff health records such as vaccination rates will be critical to collect, as policymakers weigh the factors necessary to reopen schools, Leichty said.
“Both sets of data are going to be important for administrators and their educators to not only run their schools,” Leichty said, “but also target instruction in a way that…helps support students through this period.”
Photo: President Joe Biden signs an executive order in the state dining room at the White House, one of many he has signed, on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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