How NOT To Help Struggling Students

By now you are aware of the disastrous results on the national test known as ‘The Nation’s Report Card,’ which tested a stratified representative sample of 4th and 8th graders in reading and math. The results demonstrated what most state tests have already revealed:  COVID, school closures, and inadequate virtual schooling did major damage to our children’s learning.  

What you may not realize is that this was not NEW news. Savvy educators, politicians, and anyone who has been paying attention to state test results knew this was coming.

NAEP reported that the average fourth-grade math score decreased by 5 points to its lowest level since 2005. The average eighth-grade math score decreased by 8 points to its lowest level since 2003. Basically, nearly every group went backwards, with those who started at a lower level losing the most ground.  

Harvard’s Tom Kane, writing in The Atlantic, reported that “students at low-poverty schools that stayed remote had lost the equivalent of 13 weeks of in-person instruction. At high-poverty schools that stayed remote, students lost the equivalent of 22 weeks. Racial gaps widened too: In the districts that stayed remote for most of last year, the outcome was as if Black and Hispanic students had lost four to five more weeks of instruction than white students had.” Keep that number, 22 weeks, in mind please.

For an interesting take on NAEP’s strange way of measuring, please read this:

Other studies have shown the harm that COVID and school closures inflicted on students’ emotional health.  This NIH study found that “Prolonged school closures possessed negative effects on K-12 students’ physical, mental, and social well-being and reduced the number of health and social workers, hindering the reopening of the country.”

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who called the results “appalling and unacceptable,” told a group of reporters that the results are “a moment of truth for education,” adding “How we respond to this will determine not only our recovery, but our nation’s standing in the world.” Keep that phrase, “how we respond,” in mind as well.

Most observers responded by blaming someone else, of course. The ‘blame game,’ which has been going on since schools closed, reached epic proportions when the NAEP results were made public.  Although teacher unions have been receiving the brunt of the calumny, the data doesn’t support those accusations.   Actually, the data can be manipulated (‘interpreted’) to support just about any accusation…or none.  

Let me explain: Because not one state improved overall, the usual Red vs Blue arguments are irrelevant.  Because students in charter schools showed the same dismal results as those attending traditional public schools, that undercuts the ‘charters are better’ argument.  While it’s true that unions generally supported keeping schools closed, nearly all charter schools are non-union, and the charter sector’s disappointing results take the wind out of the ‘It’s the unions’ fault’ accusation.

Affixing blame is a fool’s errand anyway. What matters is doing something that helps struggling students. Dr. Peggy Carr, the Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, recently told a new program that  “The good news is that we know what works. We have evidence-based strategies that have science behind them, proven effects, that, if we implement them, we can turn things around.” Unfortunately, the reporter did not ask Dr. Carr for details.

Here is what Dr. Carr might have said.  At least three strategies have been shown to help struggling students raise their test scores: 1) summer school; 2) an extended school day and year, and 3) what is known as ‘high-dosage tutoring,’ where one trained tutor works with no more than four students, three times a week for an entire year.  Of course, these strategies are designed to raise achievement scores, which they no doubt can do. However, I’d like to see evidence that the gains persist, because I suspect that the ‘forgetting curve’ is just as steep–if not steeper–than the ‘learning curve.’

Let’s go back to “22 weeks” and “How we respond,” the two phrases I asked you to keep in mind. The goal of those three ‘ evidence-based’ strategies is the same: stuff the information the students missed into their skulls and brains. Is this a good idea? Here’s an analogy that might be useful: Imagine that you were held captive for 22 weeks. During your captivity, you were allowed only one meal, lunch, meaning that you missed 154 breakfasts and 154 dinners. Now that you are free, can you catch up if we force-feed you those missed meals? Perhaps three breakfasts and three dinners for the next 51 days? Or maybe two breakfasts and two dinners for the next 77 days? Would either strategy work? Of course not! Your body would reject the food, and you might even take a turn for the worse. The extra hours and days, summer school, and intense tutoring are the educational equivalent of force-feeding. If educators and policy-makers respond by endorsing these strategies and these alone, history will record that their response was inadequate to meet the challenge.

As I said at the top of this piece, the on-going educational disaster and the existence of some remedies are NOT “new news.” The Biden Administration and the Congress gave state education agencies and school districts $190 billion in federal pandemic relief, but they have not been spending the money!

In sum, policymakers and educational leaders knew about the impending disaster, knew about possible solutions, and knew they had the money to implement solutions….and still they have done almost nothing!

Is there a tutor shortage?  OK, then raise the pay!  Is there resistance to extended day, extended year, and summer school from teachers and other workers?  OK, then raise everyone’s pay, and figure out how to persuade parents that this approach will work, even though most kids and parents hate the idea of summer school! 

However, those school districts that are looking for ‘more of the same–that are working overtime to ‘get back to normal‘–are making a huge mistake. It’s long past time to acknowledge that ‘normal’ wasn’t all that great for most students.  Those adults who are merely focused on boosting test scores are going to do more harm than good.

I wish more educators were capable of thinking outside the box.  Here’s one suggestion: Think of children as returning prisoners of war, and act accordingly.

While I often disagree with Mike Petrilli  of the Fordham Foundation, this advice of his makes perfect sense to me:  “The best act of contrition is for us to ensure that the Covid generation now gets everything it needs to be made whole: the extra resources and instructional time to make up for learning loss, and the social and emotional support to get back to full health, physically and emotionally. That still is not enough, but it is the least we can do.”

How will we respond?

9 thoughts on “How NOT To Help Struggling Students

    • Hello John from a fellow ‘63. I couldn’t help responding to your comments. I’m not sure that the Covid crisis has created the same problems for my students. I have been teaching for 52 years at a community college in Massachusetts (retired from full time over 12 years ago) and have been concerned about students lack of the ability to think critically and to express themselves clearly for most of that time. And, believe it or not, I teach chemistry. I have often been forced to teach classes online which I strongly believe is not the best for my students. Imagine chemistry labs online! Despite my particular issues at the community college, as an educator I am most concerned about what is happening with those being ‘educated’ in our K through 12 grades. We must somehow convince all involved, parents, educators, legislators, the general public, and the students themselves that appropriate standards and rigor will serve us all best. I don’t have the answers, but I stand committed to support those who do. Our future depends on providing the best education possible for those who are going to make the decisions that will affect all of us.


      • Thanks for writing, David. I share your view of the damage done to our young in schools that obsess over test scores and pay insufficient attention to the whole child. In fact, that term, ‘the whole child,’ is often used derisively by right-wing critics of public education.
        My mantra these days is straightforward: Ask “how is this child smart?” instead of “how smart is this child?” I managed to expand those 13 words into a book, “Addicted to Reform,” which I think you might enjoy. Good for you for a lifetime of teaching….


  1. I normally enjoy your take on education but not today. There is no crisis. Test scores in math have fallen some from their highs but students like the rest of us just went through a grueling 2 years so are you really surprised? What is the solution to these declines? Just get out of the road a let educators do their job! No new agendas. No new extended days. No force summer school. No high velocity tutoring. Allow professional educators to do their job and two years from now public schools in America will still be the highest performing schools in the world.


    • I clearly did not write clearly, because we are pretty much on the same page on this issue. I have made some revisions, above, in hopes that readers will realize that I am skeptical of anything that smacks of ‘catching up’ by turning up the heat. That’s akin to adding more ponies to the Pony Express to try to compete with the emerging technology of the telegraph and telegram.


      • Hi John, Sorry for being so tardy here.

        I don’t know if you did not “write clearly” or if I did a bad job of reading. Whatever the case, I really like the post in its current state. I liked it so much that I borrowed from it for my latest post. Thanks for all your good work.


  2. John, as usual you’re right on target. Here’s a few thoughts. My school, years back, developed reading clubs where students had their ” jumping off” point determined by a short one on one reading assessment. Not for judgement but for information.

    The next step was to compare the scores to the classroom reality. Once that is completed, Students were placed by level for 45 minutes 3 days a week. Before and after reading they were in heterogeneous groupings.

    All staff were involved to bring group sizes down. The lowest readers, preprimer, had 3 in a group while others became progressively larger.

    The results are in my books. In addition we integrated the academics into community activities to make them real.

    All these required the elimination of grade levels as they are now moot. The elimination of letter grades as they become meaningless and re rethinking failure which now becomes a part of the learning process.

    i could go on for ever but you might want to read my newest book A FAILED SYSTEM. Pandemic Related Solutions to a 200 Yesr old crisis.

    Liked by 1 person

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