thrown for a loop

Elementary school teachers sometimes follow a class of students from year to year. New research suggests that’s a good idea.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Kim Van Duzer, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, had a chance to follow her students from third to fourth grade the next school year, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It was such a positive experience,” she said. “One of the big advantages is starting in September hitting the ground running — you already know the kids and the things they did the previous year and the things they need to work on.”

Now, a new study seems to confirm Van Duzer’s experience. Students improve more on tests in their second year with the same teacher, it finds, and the benefits are largest for students of color.

Repeating teachers is “a beneficial and relatively low-cost policy that should be given due consideration,” write the researchers, Andrew Hill of Montana State University and Daniel Jones of the University of Southern Carolina.

The paper focuses on North Carolina students in grades 3 to 5 who had the same teacher two years in a row. That usually occurred not when a whole class repeated  with the same teacher — what’s often called “looping” — but with a small share of students ending up with the same teacher twice, for whatever reason.

How much did that second year with a teacher help? The overall effect was very small, enough to move an average student from about the 50th to the 51st percentile. But even this modest improvement is notable for several reasons.

First, it’s a policy that, at least in theory, doesn’t cost anything or require legislation to implement. Schools, if they choose to, could make looping a habit.

Second, the gains were larger for kids of color than for white students, suggesting that this could make a slight dent in longstanding test-score gaps.

Third, the students who saw the biggest gains had teachers who were lower performing overall, suggesting that having the same students twice may be particularly useful for helping teachers improve.

Fourth, it’s an idea that could affect a lot of students. Just being in a class where many peers were repeating with a teacher seemed to benefit kids who were new to the teacher, the study finds. The researchers think that could be because those teachers’ classroom environments improve during that second year with many of the same students.

That aligns with Van Duzer’s experience, when she had a handful of new students in her looped class. “The other kids were really welcoming to them, and they became fully integrated members of our class community,” she said.

Fifth, there may be other benefits not captured by test score gains. For Van Duzer, being able to pick up existing connections with students’ families was another perk. “It takes a school year to fully develop a relationship with kids and their parents — for everybody to get to know each other, to develop trust, to be able to speak really openly,” she said.

One important caveat: the study can’t prove that if looping were expanded, that the benefits would persist. Past research also isn’t much of a guide because there’s so little out there, but what exists is consistent with the latest study.

A recent analysis found students in rural China scored higher on tests as a result of the approach. Here in the U.S., the best evidence might come from what amounts to the reverse of the policy: having teachers of younger students focus on a single subject, and thus not have a single class of students. In Houston, this led to substantial drops in student test scores and attendance.

These studies suggest early grade teachers do better when they “specialize” in a small group of students, rather than a certain academic subject.

To Van Duzer, who now serves as a math coach at her school, having a firm understanding of what students learned the previous year is crucial and helps explain the findings.

“A lot of times when kids move into a new grade, the teachers are like, ‘You learned this last year!’ and the kids are like, ‘We did?’” she said. “But then if you say certain words … you remind them of certain experiences, like ‘Remember when we studied China and we talked about this?’ and then they’re like ‘Oh yeah, I do remember.’ But if you haven’t been there with them for those experiences, it’s harder to activate that knowledge.”

explainer

What it will mean if Betsy DeVos rolls back the Obama school discipline rules

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions participate in a meeting of the Federal Commission on School Safety on August 16, 2018. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Two years ago, it seemed like scrapping Obama-era guidance around school suspensions might be at the top of Betsy DeVos’s to-do list as education secretary.

The rules encouraged schools to limit suspensions and expulsions, and have been supported by progressives and civil rights groups. But they have been heavily criticized by conservatives, who say they’ve made schools less safe. Still, the guidelines have stayed in place, even as conversations about school safety have taken on new intensity.

The Washington Post reported Monday that the final report of the school safety commission convened after February’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, will recommend that the guidance be eliminated. That would be a victory for the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools, a connection that remains questionable and hotly debated. The report is expected this month.

“The Federal Commission on School Safety has studied the topic of school discipline extensively and will make a recommendation on the Obama-era school discipline guidance in its final report,” Department of Education spokesperson Liz Hill said.

The debate about these guidelines is long-running and fierce. Here’s a guide to what’s at stake and what to look out for as decisions are made.

Catch me up: What is this guidance?

This all centers around a letter issued in January 2014 by the education and justice departments. It said that school leaders should seek out alternatives to suspension and other penalties that take students out of the classroom, especially when their behavior isn’t violent.

The guidelines also pushed districts to take a close look at how students of different racial groups are punished. The letter said that disparities could trigger a federal review into whether a district had violated civil rights law.

Leaders from both departments made clear that this was an issue they would take seriously. “We will enforce Federal laws to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination in school discipline,” they wrote.

Many districts were already changing their approaches. Research on the connection between suspensions and dropout rates, among other issues, had been pushing districts like Denver, Los Angeles, and New York City to eliminate “zero tolerance” policies and curb suspensions.

It’s unclear exactly how many more districts adjusted their policies because of the directives — one survey of superintendents in 47 states found that 16 percent of districts did — but Obama officials certainly encouraged the shift.

Why has it become such a big deal?

The short answer is that the guidance has become significant to both the political left and right, with practical and symbolic import. On the left, it represents the fight against racism and the potential of the Trump administration to set that back. On the right, the guidance represents a bungled top-down government intervention that allows misbehavior to go unpunished.

For instance, Max Eden, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank The Manhattan Institute, has described the guidance as “coercive.” According to Eden’s analysis, at least 350 districts were investigated by the Office of Civil Rights from 2009 to 2017 “for the purpose of intimidating them into adopting discipline policies favored by the Obama administration.” In his view, the guidance trampled on local authority, pushing districts to poorly implement changes that led to disorder in schools.

National school boards and superintendents groups have also been critical of the guidance, saying it cut into local autonomy. Teachers in certain districts have reported that they have been hamstrung without good alternatives to suspension. Some of those critics got a hearing before department officials late last year.

DeVos has also heard from supporters of the guidance. To them, the guidance simply codified longstanding laws meant to protect against discrimination. Some have conceded that changes were poorly implemented in some cases. But much of the education world — including teachers unions and certain education reform groups — has urged DeVos to maintain the Obama-era rules.

These tensions have likely been heightened by the president. Rescinding the guidance, to some progressives, would be an extension of the Trump administration’s racist policymaking. Indeed, the language used by some opponents has had racist undertones, like an essay in a Manhattan Institute publication titled “No Thug Left Behind.” Breitbart, the far-right site, has described the guidance as an “Obama-era school leniency policy of reducing reports of violent behavior committed by minority students.”

How did this all get connected to the school safety commission?

The February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, prompted the Trump administration to convene a school safety commission and reinvigorated conservative opposition to the discipline guidance.

Commenters blamed Broward County’s alternative discipline programs, meant to reduce suspensions, for allowing the shooter to escape scrutiny for earlier offenses. And they blamed the Obama guidance for leading to the creation of Broward’s program, a claim that percolated through conservative media.

That connection doesn’t make sense. Broward’s program launched in 2013 — before the Obama administration issued its 2014 guidance. But politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio repeated the claim that the guidance contributed to the massacre, which killed 17.

Trump named DeVos chair of the school safety commission, and “Repeal of the Obama Administration’s ‘Rethink School Discipline’ policies” was one of its areas of focus, suggesting the decision was inevitable.

The Post reports that the commission, as expected, will not recommend new gun restrictions.

It’s also worth noting that legitimate questions have been raised more recently about Broward County’s initiatives to reduce suspensions, which were held up as a model by the Obama administration. The Broward superintendent originally claimed that shooter Nikolas Cruz was not part of district’s Promise program, which was meant to avoid referring students to police after non-violent offenses. A local NPR station would later report that he was. Other local reporting suggested that teachers felt ill-equipped to implement the disciplinary changes, and some reported that student behavior got worse as a result.

What will changes mean for schools and students?

The guidance didn’t require schools to adopt specific policies, and rescinding it won’t require changes, either. But a change could influence school districts’ decisionmaking and embolden opposition to discipline changes already underway.

Still, a number of districts have already said they are committed to seeing through the changes they’ve made.

If the guidance is rescinded, “I think in our district, it wouldn’t change anything,” Christopher Maher, superintendent of Providence Public Schools in Rhode Island, said recently. Still, he said, “I think it helps when you have voices like that at a federal level making a statement.”

Going back to the core issue here — do suspensions really harm students?

There’s lots of evidence that students who get suspended have lower test scores and higher dropout rates than students who don’t get suspended. It’s also well documented that black students, students with disabilities, and boys are much more likely than others to be suspended or expelled.

To critics of exclusionary discipline, this is strong evidence that those disciplinary tactics are deeply problematic. But it’s also true that the connection doesn’t prove that suspensions harm students — only that students headed for worse outcomes are also the students who get suspended, which is not surprising.

Recent research gets closer to pinning down cause and effect, though. In Louisiana, a study  found that when a black student and a white student got into a fight, the black student was suspended for longer, though the difference was very small. And a handful of recent studies have shown that suspensions do actually cause lower test scores, though again, the effect was fairly small.

And has cutting back on suspensions made things worse, a key claim of discipline reform critics? There’s limited evidence, one way or another. One study in Chicago found that when the district modestly cut down on suspensions, student test scores and attendance actually rose as a result.

Meanwhile, there’s also not much known about how effective alternatives, like restorative justice, have been either.

In the classroom

This Memphis teacher wanted to make learning physics more engaging, so he created a website. Now it’s used in 40 countries.

PHOTO: Jack Replinger
Jack Replinger poses with his students at The Soulsville Charter School.

Three girls explode into laughter and cheers as they roll a small cart across the table, successfully getting a rubber band to launch the cart just fast enough to knock a washer off the back of the cart, but not quite fast enough to knock over two washers.

These high schoolers might look like they are just playing with toys inside their Memphis classroom, but they are actually in the middle of a physics lesson. That’s by design.

In his 12 years as a teacher in Memphis, Jack Replinger has worked on perfecting physics lessons that are easy to break down, accessible to students who may not be on grade level in reading and math, and, above all, fun for his students at The Soulsville Charter School in south Memphis. But he’s got another huge aspiration as well: to bring his increasingly popular physics website to as many students and teachers as he can, and to as many countries.

“I was trying to teach the way I had been taught,” Replinger said of his first years in the classroom. “It was boring and a bit of a disaster. Over winter break my second year of teaching, I blew up everything I had learned and said, ‘OK, I’m going to slow this down and move away from teaching long equations.’ That’s when I really started to enjoy teaching.”

Replinger came up with the idea three years ago to take his lessons, which were handed out in his classrooms as thick, paper packets, and turn them into an interactive website, for his students. It’s called Positive Physics. Software engineer Anthony Fizer, who played pick-up basketball with Replinger, helped him get the site running in 2015 and continues to work on the site. Now, more than 6,000 students in 585 schools across 49 states and in 40 countries have used the free website to learn physics. Replinger grew the site’s reach through his postings in teacher-focused Facebook groups and on other social networks.

“I originally wanted to make this because I wanted a website where my students would work that had interesting problems and also didn’t punish them if they are behind in grade level,” Replinger said. “But I think it’s clear it’s hit on a need for teachers elsewhere.”

The website thus far has been mostly self-funded, though he has solicited small donations from friends, family, and via PayPal, and has received some help from the Soulsville Foundation. Replinger said he is now working to find outside investors to keep the website going into the future.

Replinger came to Memphis in 2007 from Seatle as a Teach For America educator, and he was recently named as the winner of the Barbara Rosser Hyde Alumni Leadership Award, a $5,000 award recognizing leadership among the program’s alumni in Memphis.

When Replinger started teaching at Kingsbury High School as part of the teacher training program, he said he struggled to engage his first classes of physics students. He said so much of his first years of teaching was writing problems and grading, that he had little time to design labs such as the rubber band cart experiment. Part of his goal for the website was to prevent other early career educators from going through the same slog.

“For me, this is a chance to say to other teachers, ‘Let me write the problems for you so you can focus on labs,’ he said. “It takes the burden off newer teachers so they can focus on the fun and creative stuff.”

Anna Krueger, a teacher at Hamilton High School, said that the site has taken a “huge load off of my shoulders,” while also guarding against cheating since each student gets different numbers to work with on the same type of problems.

“I feel like this prevents cheating really well and simultaneously encourages teamwork,” Krueger said.

Jack Replinger Soulsville Charter School
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
In his 12 years as a teacher in Memphis, Jack Replinger has worked on perfecting physics lessons.

For Replinger, he said the most rewarding part of the site goes back to how it impacts his students. The high schoolers can pace themselves and try homework problems as many times as they like without punishment.

He said one student story stands out as an example of how the site can boost confidence among his high schoolers.

“I had a student last year who saw herself completely not as a math person,” he said. “But she spent a lot of time practicing on the site, and she would even start on homework problems before I had assigned them. She started the class by getting a D on the first quiz. She ended it by getting As at the honors level.”