EmbraceRace

Does a New Administration Mean Better Policies for Kids?

2021 marks the beginning of a new decade and a new administration in Washington DC. President Biden and Vice President Harris have said that under their watch racial equity will be central to the federal government’s policies, programs, and operations. What might that mean for our 74 million children, half of them children of color? What state, regional, and local policy and programmatic decisions might prove even more significant? From public education to gun violence, health to poverty, what child-facing policy opportunities and debates affecting our nation’s children most demand our attention as we begin a new decade?

In this conversation, we shine a spotlight on some of the issues, places, and opportunities we need to understand, and weigh in on, if we’re to advance the well-being of children, in general, and children of color in particular. As always, we took your questions and comments.

EmbraceRace: This conversation is really about there's been this change in administration, and we as champions of all kids, who also center kids of color, want to understand the opportunity, the change, what this administration means for the welfare of our kids. 74 million kids in the country, half of them kids of color. A lot of you have sent questions, particularly, about schools, school policy, and other things related to kids and we're excited to get to those soon.

I'm going to introduce our guests now. You see that our guests are especially deep around issues of children and trauma and school and we're going to spend a lot of time on that in particular. 

Nancy Allen-Scannell is Director of External Affairs at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC). Nancy has led MSPCC's public affairs team since 2006, and is responsible for the development and achievement of strategies to shape state policy, with a goal of improving the lives of children and supporting families. Nancy previously served for 10 years in various public policy roles at Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence. So clearly, Nancy comes with some deep experience and very relevant experience. Welcome, Nancy. Great to have you.

Nancy Allen-Scannell: Thank you. It's an honor to be with you.

EmbraceRace: We're also joined by Dr. Stephan Blanford, who is the Executive Director of Children's Alliance in Washington State, where he leads a team of employees and staff committed to improving outcomes for children and families across the state of Washington. He was elected and served on the Seattle School Board in 2013. At the conclusion of his term, he received the "Leadership of Equity" award for his unapologetic advocacy for educational justice. He is a proud father of a high school senior, who has launched his success in a Head Start classroom and has been an advocate for quality early learning ever since. Stephan, welcome.

Dr. Stephan Blanford: Thanks for having me. I'm thrilled to have this opportunity to engage on these critical topics.

EmbraceRace: Awesome. Thank you so much. We're going to start with both of you, with a place we typically start with our guests. The topics that we deal with, we find, almost with fail, that there's a personal investment that guests have that help explain the work that they do.

Let me start with you, Stephan, and ask you, if we all knew you even better, what is it we would know about you personally that would explain this work that you're doing?

Dr. Stephan Blanford: My family comes from generational poverty. We are the family that when you see pictures in high school history books of very poor Southern families, I'm one of them. And because my mom and dad made some pretty significant sacrifices to enable me to have access to high-quality education, I feel like I have a responsibility to do what I can to give opportunities to children and families in Washington State. My School Board service, I serve 54,000 students enrolled in Seattle public schools. And now, in my role as the Executive Director of Children's Alliance, that's 1.6 million children in Washington State that I get the opportunity to advocate for, and I am thrilled to have that opportunity and try and advance opportunities for all kids, but especially for low-income kids and kids of color, here in Washington State.

EmbraceRace: Beautiful. Nancy, why do you do the work that you do?

Nancy Allen-Scannell: I am a middle-income, White woman who was raised in an Irish-Catholic family in Massachusetts, which puts me in a place of privilege. We were not particularly well-resourced financially, but certainly I enjoyed a fair amount of opportunity. In my adult life, I am a mom to a child who is White and African-American. My wife and I raise our daughter with her two dads. And so, we are a mixed race and LBGTQ+ family. So my investment in equity comes from my investment in my child and in our family and in ensuring she has all the opportunities and access to services, supports, and opportunities that every other child should have. That's my personal commitment to the work that you're doing, and I really admire your efforts. Thank you.

EmbraceRace: That's admirable work.

In the work that you both do for kids, what populations do you serve and what are you seeing or paying attention to right now, in terms of the issues that are most concerning for those populations that you work with?

Dr. Stephan Blanford: Sure. Children's Alliance is a statewide advocacy organization. We pretty unapologetically try to analyze policies and then work to enact policies that are most beneficial to low-income children and children of color across our state. We have had an advocacy portfolio this year where we're really focused on early learning and childcare. In Washington State, we have a pretty significant issue with a lot of childcare centers that are closing. COVID has had an incredibly detrimental impact on many of our centers, and we know that that has a disproportionate impact on low-income Black and Brown kids.

And so, we have been pretty unapologetic about saying, "What are we doing to resolve that issue?" Because it will have long-term consequences for the kids, and for the state of Washington, if they don't have access to high-quality childcare. We're also pushing on legislative agenda items that will increase the amount of funding that's going towards that sector, and I'll be really happy to share some victories that we had just today, in that area, when the time is appropriate.

Nancy Allen-Scannell: MSPCC has a long history of providing direct services in communities, and throughout its history has also had a commitment to advocacy. And so, it's my privilege to direct the advocacy functions at MSPCC, which sit in a couple of different spaces. Primarily, our work in child welfare, where we support the work of the statewide Foster Parent Association, as well as some of our own efforts, and our work in coordinating the Children's Mental Health Campaign, which is a large statewide network of organizations and individuals that is guided by the efforts of six leadership team organizations, so one of them is my organization MSPCC. The others are Boston Children's Hospital, the Parent Professional Advocacy League (PPAL), who I hope you know, Health Care For All, Health Law Advocates, the Mass Association for Mental Health. And so, those are the six organizations that lead those efforts.

Our primary focus, within those areas, are access to timely and effective resources to prevent, diagnose, and treat mental health issues in a timely, effective, and compassionate way. And then, in the child welfare space, we're focused on ensuring that kids who cannot live safely at home for some period of time have the services, supports that they need to address any effects of trauma, to engage in their education, to make friends, and essentially, to really lead as normal a life as possible during the period of time that they have to be separated from their families. And, failing that, that there are systems in place to create lifelong connections to caring adults, whether that's through adoption or through other means of connecting kids with their kin or other caring adults. Those are our two main focuses, and you can see that there's a lot of intersection between the two.

EmbraceRace: Stephan, you mentioned COVID and the impact on closing childcare facilities. Of course, lots and lots of people, parents, educators, and others are thinking very hard about COVID, the return to school, all the issues, and we talk about mental health issues. And one thing that strikes me reading the paper and hearing people talk, is that, of course, we know that COVID has had a really sharply differential impact by race, by income, right? These categories that you named, Stephan. And one way that those differences manifest themselves, it seems to me, is that with the rollout of the vaccine, two million people a day being vaccinated, right? Significant number, and that's going to increase. It seems to me that a significant part of the country, for them, this is the beginning of the end, right? We can see the goal line, or whatever the metaphor is, is in sight and we're almost ready to "get back to normal."

But for a significant portion of the population, including I suspect, a lot of the kids and families that both of you deal with, that really is a different thing. Mental health is part of it. I wonder if you could, again, staying with you

Nancy, can you say a bit more about what you're seeing, what you're thinking about, what your concerns are with respect to those kids who are disproportionately affected by COVID in Massachusetts that you care about?

Nancy Allen-Scannell: I think, with respect to COVID and the aftereffects of it, behavioral health experts across the spectrum are agreeing and predicting that we're seeing the beginning of a follow-along wave, if you use the analogy of COVID-19 as a tsunami and there being another wave that comes along after it, that a behavioral health pandemic has already begun to bubble up. And we're seeing it terms of increased levels of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation. Some of the research is indicating that we will see data that shows increased suicide attempts, and that ultimately we will see an increase in death by suicide among young people. Everything from the less intensive behavioral health needs, if you will, to the more intensive behavioral health needs are bubbling up. The result, of course, is seen probably most acutely in sky-high rates of boarding in emergency departments, and the disengagement of kids from their education.

We are, I think, as worried about the kids we're not seeing, at this point, as we are about the kids that we are seeing. And this runs the spectrum in terms of age, so beginning from our youngest kids, who for chunks of time and some of them continuing through the present, were not able to engage in early education and care, to kids who were not engaging in remote learning, especially those kids for whom it was their only option. And so, no one has seen these kids for some chunk of time. My understanding, is that those same statistics are true nationwide. It's particularly concerning for the, approximately, 75% of kids with behavioral health needs who receive or initiate their behavioral health care through engagement in school. And so, the drop-off in access has been tremendous.

I'll say this before I pause, so that Stephan can chime in as well, but I think it's important to acknowledge that the pandemic has also provided a level of creativity through which we have seen some pretty interesting effective changes in the way healthcare and behavioral healthcare are delivered, especially through telehealth. And those strategies, for some families, have actually helped to shrink some of the inequities in access. For other families, it has deepened them. And so, on the other side of this, as kids return to school, part of the work is going to be to maintain those strategies that have been effective in closing that gap, while really helping those who need the face-to-face engagement, whether that's in order to initiate IEPs and other kinds of services or because it's what works for them. And ensuring, as Massachusetts recently did, that telehealth is an available opportunity for young people who really did better utilizing those tools than they ever did for in-person resources.

PPAL, one of our partners, for one of their conferences somebody spoke and sort of said that the behavioral health system is designed in such a way that it does not often achieve the desired effect. And the example she gave is that on the day that she is struggling most, because her child is struggling the most, and she cannot get her kid out the door to the appointment and they miss it, that often results in a provider organization saying, "Yeah, but you've got too many missed appointments, and so we're cutting you off," instead of responding and meeting that child and that family where they are to really support the situation. They're responding to their own administrative needs, which I'm not unsympathetic to, but certainly aren't responsive to the child or the family.

EmbraceRace: Thank you so much for that, Nancy. Of course, both of you focus on the state level policy, advocacy, practice, and so on. And a lot of what you're talking about, a lot of the action happens there, right? At the state level, local level, the school level, district level. 

Without inviting partisan commentary, do you have anything to suggest about what the change in federal administration means for the kids you work with? How could the new administration change the conditions of the work you do and the opportunities that might be possible?

But first, Stephan, I want to come to you. Can you talk about the opportunities, if any, for advancing racial equity at a time of COVID and the concern about COVID schools?

Dr. Stephan Blanford: Yeah. My first thought with that is, in the early days of the pandemic everyone was saying something to the effect of, "How can we get back to normal?" And, over time, there was a realization that normal wasn't normal, that pre-pandemic wasn't normal to start off with. There were huge gaps in almost any measure that you would choose to look at, that were based on race, that were based on income, particularly in a public education setting, that seems inappropriate, in the sense that schools are funded and should produce outcomes that are very similar, but you're seeing these huge disparities. I'm starting to see some evidence of a reimagining and recommitment and a reconceptualization of what public education could be, so that we can start to address some of the inequities that we see in society. And we embrace that, we're looking forward to that, we push our legislators to say, "normal" wasn't normal to start off with, for our children and families, and so how can we reimagine systems, particularly with an influx of new revenue, new support? 

How could we do things in a different way, so that we can produce different outcomes than we've seen in the past? And I'm hopeful that many of the state legislators in Washington State are starting to embrace that. In some ways, it was a horrific event for the nation to see George Floyd choked out in the way that he was, but it was a catalytic moment. In Washington State, in ways that we have never seen before, our state legislators are talking about race and wanting to be on the right side of race. I was a consultant for many years before taking the role that I hold currently. And it was just kind of a given fact that when I had a contract to spend time in the state legislature, I would talk around race, but I would never directly confront race, because I knew that it would not play well with the legislators and I wanted to be sensitive to the needs of my client.

That has totally shifted in Washington State, and I believe in many other parts of the country. There's ample research out there that demonstrates how we can make improvements for children and families that have been underrepresented, undersupported for years or decades or centuries. Whereas there's a tendency to go back to the way things were, I think there's now a realization that that's not going to get us where we need to be as a society. And so, I'm hopeful that that's going to play out and not be a flash in the pan. I would tell people frequently in the days after people were marching in the streets, I said, "This will pass." There's all this energy around people writing statements and taking positions on racial equity, but as a result of the election, all of a sudden, there's a lot less attention paid to the kind of energy that people had going into the summer and coming out of the summer.

My hope is that people who are strong advocates, people who care deeply, families that are impacted, will continue the fight, because it needs to continue. I'm trying not to be partisan, but some in state legislatures, as well as Congress, are now talking about austerity and the need for austerity measures being in place, despite the fact that most economists say we need to spend our way out of the recession that we're in currently, and that by putting forward big, bold initiatives, we can both transform society and keep ourselves out of economic trouble.

I'm starting to see some evidence of a reimagining and recommitment and a reconceptualization of what public education could be, so that we can start to address some of the inequities that we see in society. And we embrace that, we're looking forward to that, we push our legislators to say, "normal" wasn't normal to start off with, for our children and families, and so how can we reimagine systems, particularly with an influx of new revenue, new support?

Dr. Stephan Blanford

EmbraceRace: I want to start this, Stephan, by pushing you on that issue of reimagining, right? You said that there's some reimagining going on. You also mentioned at the beginning that even today there was a big victory or something very good happened in your local legislature.

What's a reimagining that's happening now that has your eyes twinkling?

Dr. Stephan Blanford: Well, we in Washington State, just today as a matter of fact, I was watching the testimony that was going back and forth on an omnibus bill to transform our childcare sector and our early learning sector here in Washington State. The usual suspects were trying to figure out every way they could to take this legislation apart. But, eventually, it passed. And so, at the Children's Alliance, we were celebrating, because we had put a lot of skin in that game, and we know that it will have huge impacts for the kids and families that we care about the most. At one point, where I took the position that I hold currently, in the fall, we had done a survey and we found that somewhere between 45 and 47% of all the childcare providers in Washington State, they indicated that they would close in the next six months without an influx of additional revenue. The pandemic just wiped through the entire sector.

And I knew that that meant that we had to get really serious about advocacy for those childcare centers, because we know who works in the childcare centers. We know in many cases what kids are in those childcare sectors, and we also know that if you don't have a robust childcare sector, you can't possibly restart your economy. And we in Washington State, we have the most regressive tax system in the nation. And so, there's some serious work that we needed to do to advocate for that. We have a couple legislators that took a really strong position, did a tremendous amount of research on current conditions and what innovations could be put in place, and built a pretty substantial omnibus package of reforms for the childcare sector. And then, this is the interesting thing, we have, as you well know, anyone who's a customer of Amazon or some of the other large organizations, large corporations here in Washington State, we have some very wealthy people.

And because we have the most regressive tax system, they figured a capital gains tax might be the way to fund the innovations that need to take place in the childcare sector. And so, we have a bill that is most of the way through the legislature that taxes the less than one percent of our wealthiest people to fund the childcare innovations that are taking place. And so, we're very excited about the potential of a transformed, reimagined childcare sector that adequately serves and propels kids to their incredible promise that's obviously there.

EmbraceRace: That's fabulous. Congratulations. Hopefully it finishes the journey.

In this moment of incredible flux for kids and families and all of us, not just this moment, but this larger period, what are the bright spots are that you're seeing across the country, if any? Where should we look in the country and learn more about?

Dr. Stephan Blanford: Well, I have a few, but I'd love to defer to Nancy, if she has any, because since I've started my role, and I started it in June of last year, as people were still marching in the streets, I've been pretty head down and focused on what's going on in Washington State. I do read and have some interesting ideas or have read some interesting ideas from across the state, but I'd be interested in what Nancy would have to say in response to that question.

Nancy Allen-Scannell: Today, the COVID relief package passed in the Senate, having already passed in the House. So I think that's probably one of the most hopeful pieces of news for every state. How each state will use the resources that come to them, I think will vary widely depending upon the needs of the state and their particular priorities. But among the provisions of the package are a fair amount of resources that are targeted towards the safe reopening of schools, around behavioral health resources, around supporting providers. That, combined with states' ability to sort of reengage economically as safe reopening becomes possible, I think creates a ray of hope, that some of the good work that was happening. There are really excellent examples around the country of how states are approaching getting to kids and families sooner. As we think about how inequity and disparity bubbles up around behavioral health, it starts at birth, with everything from disparities around access to prenatal care to disparate exposures to trauma, largely due to poverty, in which we know families of color are overrepresented.

And so, it begins there, and then it continues throughout. One of the first initiatives that the Children's Mental Health Campaign got involved in was addressing disparities in suspension of preschoolers from their early education and care programs. And, naturally, one of the driving factors for that was the overrepresentation of kids of color among those, who were excluded from their childcare programs for behaviors that were clearly the result, in most instances, of traumatic events, or the emergence of a behavioral health need. And then, drilling down even further into that group, the overrepresentation of kids who were Black or Brown boys, who were being expelled from preschool settings.

And so, beginning there and continuing throughout the system and looking at work force needs, there's a chunk of resources in this COVID relief package for the behavioral health workforce. We hope that those initiatives, and we'll be advocating for those initiatives in Massachusetts to be targeted, not just to clinical services, but to peer and family partners and to other parts of the system that are best suited to engaging a wide range of kids and families. And so, I think there's tremendous opportunity to pick up, in some ways, where we left off. I think Stephan said it earlier, the system was fragile to begin with. And so, I don't want to return to where we were. Where we were was not good for kids and families. Continuing forward though, and continuing to build, I think presents some real opportunities. And I think that it's not partisan to point out the differences that this administration is making clear will be in terms of their focus versus the prior administration.

And so, the clarity with which this administration speaks to addressing inequity gives us hope and gives us an opportunity to advocate for resources in a different kind of way. I often point out to people that if you look at how behavioral health resources are distributed in our little state, it looks to me like somebody dropped M&Ms over the map of Massachusetts. It doesn't seem to have a lot more rhyme or reason than that, and that is primarily because there isn't a sufficient level of resources to fund everybody at a certain level throughout the state. And so, instead, you have grants here, a grant there, a particular foundation here, a state pot of money here. We need much more consistency. And if these resources provide us capacity to build that foundation that can then last beyond the impact of the pandemic, that'll be a really positive achievement that I do think will contribute not only to equitable access to services, but to really changing the trajectory of life outcomes that also have its own set of disparities associated with unaddressed behavioral health needs.

And if these resources [from the COVID relief package] provide us capacity to build that foundation that can then last beyond the impact of the pandemic, that'll be a really positive achievement that I do think will contribute not only to equitable access to services, but to really changing the trajectory of life outcomes that also have its own set of disparities associated with unaddressed behavioral health needs.

Nancy Allen-Scannell

EmbraceRace: Thank you for offering up some of the details of the COVID legislation. One thing that's been so interesting to me, across many months of news coverage of the various proposals or counter-proposals, is it's been extraordinary to me how much attention is paid to just a dollar amount, right? As if the content, the substantive content of what's included and not included doesn't matter, right?

Nancy Allen-Scannell: I would also say the dollar amount, they make it sound as though it's going to be spent all tomorrow afternoon. And, in fact, most of these initiatives extend over periods of time that are up to five years. So the dollar amounts become, I think, much more rational and understandable if it's given more detail.

EmbraceRace: I think they're really these solutions that are like the M&Ms, really almost individualized, rather than having leadership that really is comprehensive for kids and families. It's really nuts.

Nancy Allen-Scannell: And I would emphasize that it's not for a lack of will, certainly on the part of the folks that are distributing the resources or the communities. There isn't enough, and that's never going to be equitable.

Dr. Stephan Blanford: Yeah. I love the analogy of the M&Ms just kind of scattered across the state. That doesn't align with racial equity principles, where you have much more intentionality and focus on where concentrations of poverty are or concentrations of disparity exist, and you're driving resources to those. I know from my experience as a policy maker, when I came onto the school board, we still had practices in place where we were trying to peanut butter across 100 schools in Seattle. And, over time, we recognized that there were some schools where kids were much harder to educate, because they had these disparities in their communities, disparities in their home lives, because of factors of poverty or whatever, and we needed to have measures to be able to understand the complexities that some kids experience and other don't. And then, we needed to have distribution resources to be able to drive dollars in very targeted ways to the communities, to the schools, to the classrooms that needed them the most.

And I think, in some ways, the new administration is starting to practice a similar approach. Obviously, they have to pay lots of attention to the fact that they operate in a political environment and every senator and congressperson is thinking about bringing home the bacon to their individual district. But there's also now a recognition that wasn't there in the past, that there are some communities, there are some states, there are some regions of the country that are in a different condition than other parts of the state or the country. And so, resources need to be very targeted. And that gives me hope, because in our state, which is considered more wealthy than lots of other states in the union, we still have incredible concentrations of poverty throughout the state. They need resources right away, with intentionality, with very sophisticated ways of directing those dollars to the people and families that need them. And so, it's good to see that peanut butter approach is falling out of favor.

EmbraceRace: Are you two hungry?

Nancy Allen-Scannell: I'm going to steal that peanut butter analogy. It goes with my M&Ms. I think that's good.

EmbraceRace: I know what you're eating after this, yeah.

Dr. Stephan Blanford: Yeah. Well, I'm in the Pacific Time Zone, so yeah it's dinnertime here. 

EmbraceRace: Here's a question we got that is certainly relevant to the work that both of you do, but not right in the middle of it.

Christina is wondering about the likelihood of a permanent child tax credit. In the COVID legislation you just mentioned, there's a temporary expansion of, I think, a one year expansion of a tax credit, but a quite substantial one. What is the importance of an expansion, especially if it were to be made permanent?

Nancy Allen-Scannell: Well, I think, clearly, the economic impact of COVID-19 has been felt differently amongst different communities. And so, the tax relief that's provided here might make the difference between a family being able to support their child's needs at home or needing to seek placement outside of the home, whether that's seeking residential care or, in some instances, becoming child welfare involved or the child becoming juvenile justice involved, which we know are a couple of other pathways that children and families walk, if behavioral health needs are not addressed early and appropriately. And so, anything that can give families economic stability improves kids' wellbeing overall, their physical and their mental health care. Certainly, the importance of it can't be overstated. That said, nobody's going to mistake me for a tax policy expert, and so, I'm going to defer to Stephan, so see what he has to say about that.

Dr. Stephan Blanford: Well, you're much more of a tax policy expert than I am. I can remember a few classes that I had on that topic, and we won't talk about how well or poorly I did in them. I did pull up a little bit of data, because I was interested and anticipated that the question about the child tax credit expansion might come up. And I should start off by saying that we have a double celebration here in Washington State, in that, we have a working families tax credit proposal that was introduced very early on in our legislative term and it came up for a vote today. And it passed 94 to 2, which is pretty much as unanimous as we ever get in Washington State. And it will have a profound impact on our low-income families and disproportionate number of families that we care the most about, low-income, BIPOC children and families. And so, we're very excited about that. We haven't done all the analysis of the impact that it will have, and it still has to go to our senate, but we have a lot of joy around that.

And it speaks, I think, very powerfully to the point that I was making earlier, that we can have conversations about race that we were not able to have, not very long ago here in Washington State, and talk very boldly about the impact that it will have on Black and Brown kids and their families. I'm excited about that. I know that the earned income tax credit or the child tax credit, in either case, is a response to the overwhelming evidence that suggests that low-income people, without investment, have these detrimental impacts and detrimental life outcomes that anybody that's paying attention to the amount of money that's spent on corrections, the amount of money that's spent on remediation of kids that drop out of high school, knows that that's an investment that is much smaller than the payout that state governments have to make later on.

And so, it's a wise investment, it's just a matter of getting recalcitrant legislators to recognize that there is a very clear theory that goes from disinvestment in those early days and disinvestment in those families and what the later outcome will be. And so, countering that is in the work of advocates in Washington State and across the country.

EmbraceRace: We have a question about high-stakes testing and Biden's order to go ahead in the spring and resume high-stakes testing. What effect will the resuming of high-stakes testing have on kids and on vulnerable populations? Why is high-stakes testing happening? What can we do about it?

Dr. Stephan Blanford: I'll step back and say that, 10 years ago this month, I earned my doctorate in Education Policy and Leadership and was very thrilled to get a chance to apply it in service of kids and families in Seattle, as a School Board Director. One of the first issues that came up was high-stakes testing. And I know that one of the benefits of high-stakes testing that would not occur to children and families is it gives people a tool by which they can measure which schools are doing well and which schools aren't doing well. And I use data from the tests that we gave to our students to make strong determinations about where our revenue should be going, who it should be supporting. I know that high-stakes testing, that there is bias built into those tests, and I've really been struggling trying to figure out how do you nuance those things. But it's probably the most important performance measure for schools, to know are we educating kids the way that we say that we should be?

I struggle with there is good and bad in high-stakes testing. One of the things that gives me a little bit of solace, is that in many cases, those who are actually writing the tests are teachers. And so, they have some knowledge of what kids should be doing, what the grade level standards are, and are writing to those standards. But there's bias built into almost any assessment you could produce and it's going to have a detrimental impact, it's going to take kids out of their learning to be getting ready for the test. And so, there are lots of factors. Sometimes I've listened to the debate and struggled with the simplicity of the arguments that some folks have made, knowing that it is a complex issue that, over time, will hopefully get better and better. I think we are now in a position, I know my kid, who's on the other side of this wall, I'm glad that her high-stakes assessments in high school are over, because I know the impact that it had on our family and on her, specifically. If I were a parent of a young child who was just starting school, I would have some serious issues with high-stakes testing.

EmbraceRace: So Stephan, what I hear you saying is you think they have some diagnostic value and there's a question of what you do with that information. High-stakes for whom, in the end?

Dr. Stephan Blanford: Right.

EmbraceRace: Also, there are some serious issues including the bias and the energy that goes into them and the opportunity cost of doing them, right? Nancy, did you want to weigh in on this?

Nancy Allen-Scannell: Sure. I think you make some very valid points, Stephan. Our organization has not taken a position on this, but the behavioral health indicators are as such that I think we should all agree that additional undue pressures that do not result in the kinds of resource allocation decision making and, really, other substantial decisions for kids should be avoided, at this point in time. I think the data speaks clearly around anxiety, depression, isolation, et cetera, that's being experienced. My own child, I have a 13 year old, who insists that she has not learned anything this year. Now, I don't think that that's entirely true, she's 13, and so there's a fair amount of drama that comes with the age and the way that these things get communicated. But I do think that the confidence or support with which a kid might have approached some of this testing has been absent, at this point in time.

In her district, as has been the case for many kids across the country, she has been in a hybrid model, where she's been in school a couple of days, and then three days remote, so a fair amount of learning has been self-directed. I don't think she's nearly as confident in that. And she's fortunate to be a child who did not, pre-COVID, have a behavioral health need. So for a kid who did, the stakes are even higher and the levels of anxiety begin in a different place. And so, I think, in the absence of really compelling arguments for what the benefit for the child is, I think that every consideration should be given to suspending, delaying a year, in Massachusetts, right? They're periodic. So delaying a year for those who can and for higher education step up around some of the other kinds of testing and find other ways to figure out their admissions processes, which I know are happening currently.

Really, I think, to put it simply. Give these kids a break! It has been a brutal year. More than half of the families in the United States have either lost someone to COVID-19 who was very, very close to them, my own family included. Or they've had someone or they themselves have become very ill at some point from the virus. Nobody's not been touched by this. The level of trauma that we have all experienced is something that will unfold over time, but we should start by just acknowledging it at a baseline, and really giving each other a break, and really starting with our kids. Give them time to heal. Give them time to build up confidence, a sense of competence, and then let them show us what they can do.

Dr. Stephan Blanford: So while I was in school, the whole concept of standardized testing is built on the notion that you take kids that are at a certain level, you spend a year educating them, and then you assess what they learned. And there'll be some variation, right? Based on who spent more time, who had the better teachers, they may achieve at higher levels. This year is unlike any year, and this year is a year where we can say, pretty confidently, that there was no floor. There were some kids that had access to technology on the day that the pandemic struck. There are other kids that we still don't know that they have any access to technology. There are many kids that have not checked into school one day, since the pandemic started.

And so, to have some sort of an assessment and say, "What did you learn in this last year?" It's guaranteed that you're going to have huge variation, because many kids didn't have access to technology, through no fault of their own. We discovered that there are parts of cities and regions and states that there just wasn't the type of access that we thought was there. And so, I think Nancy makes really good points about this is not the year to have a standard by which everyone has to measure up.

EmbraceRace: One thing I wanted to underline, because we didn't do it upfront. EmbraceRace, we talk about supporting, bringing resources, and community to support parents, educators, other adults in the lives of children, so that those children can be thoughtful, informed, and brave about race, that's what we say. We're usually talking about practices and the practices and the knowledge that adults need to do that work and the community they need, where it's rare for us to talk specifically focused on policy issues and agency practice and so on. But the thing that we didn't make clear that I hope our audience realizes, and I do want to underline here is, the things that two of you are talking about, and many more things, of course that we can talk about, form a crucial part of the backdrop on which ideas about race and expressions of race.

And when you think about what the two of you are saying, how that's manifested in schools, including in virtual contexts, right? How it's manifesting in neighborhoods, in families. Yes, when we have these standardized test scores and those results come, think about how that will be formulated in racial terms, those outcomes, whether explicitly or implicitly. I mean, that is the backdrop against which all of us are raising or nurturing the children in our lives, right? And much more could be said about that, so I just wanted to be clear, it's very, very relevant.

We're so pleased that you came on and were willing to have this conversation and share. And thank you to everyone out there, as well.

And as Massachusetts residents, Nancy, we hope that you'll be able to sing the praises of the Massachusetts legislature in the way the Stephan is beginning to sing the praises of the Washington State.

Nancy Allen-Scannell: Absolutely. There's lots to say about them. And if you are from Massachusetts, you can visit us at childrensmentalhealthcampaign.org, to learn a bit more about our policy, agenda, and to get involved in it.

EmbraceRace: Great.

Dr. Stephan Blanford: Thank you for having us.

EmbraceRace: Now, it's M&M and peanut butter time, right?

Nancy Allen-Scannell: After the Reese's Cups.

EmbraceRace: Peanut butter M&Ms. Yeah. And thank you to those who came and to all those, the interpreters, and others who helped us make this possible. Thank you so much. Good night.

Nancy Allen-Scannell

Nancy Allen-Scannell is Director of External Affairs at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Nancy has led MSPCC’s public affairs team since 2006 and is responsible for the development and achievement of strategies to shape state policy with the goal of improving the lives of children and supporting families.

Dr. Stephan Blanford

Dr. Stephan Blanford is the Executive Director of Children’s Alliance where he leads a team of employees and staff committed to improving outcomes for children and families across the state of Washington. He was elected and served on the Seattle School Board in 2013 and at the conclusion of his term, he received the “Leadership for Equity” award for his unapologetic advocacy for educational justice. He is the proud father of a high school senior who was launched to success in a Head Start classroom and has been an advocate for quality early learning since then.
  • Share
  • facebook
  • twitter