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?