The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress show declining test scores across the country, taking students back to where they were two decades ago. At the same time, we saw sharp increases in educational inequality, with much larger losses in high-poverty counties. Still, there is a worrying disconnect between the magnitude of the catching-up efforts in the last school year and the magnitude of the declines.
These losses are not remedied by a few hours of tutoring or a helpful computer program. Schools and families need to look closely at where each student stands. And their communities need to strengthen to help them in any way they can.
The best metaphor for this moment comes not from educational history but from the space program.
When President John F. Kennedy issued his lunar challenge, NASA’s rocket designers calculated the thrust they would need to send a spacecraft to the moon and soon realized they would need something much larger than anything they had built before had. The result was the Saturn V rocket.
Today, school district leaders are responsible for reversing learning losses on a scale none of them have ever experienced. And they were given little guidance as to what an appropriate response might be. No wonder many system leaders have launched the bottle rocket equivalents: an increase in summer school enrollments or tutoring a few more students.
Communities need to think bigger and bolder to plan a package of responses that rise to the challenge.
To a certain extent, it’s hard to blame them for not setting higher goals in their senior year. Ongoing waves of Covid-19 and significant challenges in staffing, planning and competing priorities in schools made it difficult enough to implement the existing plans. But even if the interventions had gone as planned, they would not have been enough to catch up with students in many districts.
The first step is to define the role more clearly in front of educators and families.
States must help everyone recognize the loss in terms of what it takes to get students back on track. Telling educators that attainment rates have fallen is not enough. Explaining that students lost several months or a year of math class provides a stronger basis for planning an ambitious recovery agenda.
Second, states and districts should be transparent about what different solutions can achieve.
Research suggests that districts may be able to generate additional growth for a year by providing students with three hours of tutoring with three or fewer students per teacher — each week. A summer school session provides an academic quarter’s worth of learning. An additional algebra class can provide students with the material they would learn in a semester.
Once districts and parents know how much learning their students have lost and what it will cost to make it up, they can take action commensurate with the challenge. Thanks to the President and Congress, schools have an unprecedented infusion of federal funds to work with. They also need staff, time and space. For this they need the approval of the community.
Take staffing: Given the shortages in the teaching profession, schools may not be able to recruit on their own or through existing channels. Expanding partnerships between schools and teacher education programs is a promising strategy that several states and districts are using to recruit intervention providers. But in areas where the need for students is greatest, states could mobilize (and pay for) local students, parents, and other community members to provide tutoring.
Schools and educational leaders should also be open about what these efforts are asking of families. The expansion of learning opportunities, such as after-school programs or Saturday academies, requires students and families to sacrifice time that they would normally spend on extra-curricular activities, family responsibilities, or even vacations. Year-round school requires more extensive adjustments to family routines – although this could be beneficial for parents trying to place children in summer care.
In order to reach consensus among families that these changes are worthwhile, counties and states need to be crystal clear about where each child stands.
A June poll found that more than 90 percent of parents believe their children are at or above grade level. In another survey, nearly 50 percent of parents of teens worried their child was being left behind because of the pandemic. These numbers just don’t tally with what we know about where students stand academically today. Making students’ academic status transparent to families may be painful, but it’s important.
Districts cannot and should not do this alone. Our children deserve more than going back to where they were two years ago. You deserve a Saturn V to rocket to the moon – and beyond.