What do schools need to help kids overcome pandemic learning loss?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Nationwide test results released last week provided a “sobering” picture of the effects that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the academic progress of U.S. elementary school students.

The findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — a highly respected standardized test often referred to as “the nation’s report card” — showed significant drops in math and reading scores among American 9-year-olds, when compared to members of the same age group who took the test in early 2020. Reading scores declined at a rate not seen in 30 years, and math scores fell for the first time in the history of the NAEP, which has been testing students since the 1970s. Though scores dropped among most groups, the declines were most pronounced among students who were already underperforming and students of color.

“These results are sobering,” said Peggy G. Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the group that administers the NAEP. “It’s clear that covid-19 shocked American education and stunted the academic growth of this age group.”

These new results added kindling to the long-simmering debate about how the country’s schools responded to COVID, specifically on the decision to close schools — and in many cases, leave them closed — in favor of remote learning. Ronna McDaniel, head of the Republican National Committee, accused teachers unions and Democrats in blue cities of creating a “lost generation” by keeping kids out of the classroom.

The White House, on the other hand, has placed blame on Biden’s predecessor for failing to keep COVID under control. “We must repair the damage done by Donald Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

Why there’s debate

Alongside ongoing disagreements about decisions made in the past, the release of the NAEP scores also sparked a parallel debate about how the U.S. should respond to the troubling decline in student scores.

That conversation, too, has been in many ways split along partisan lines. Conservatives generally see the drop in scores as a broad indictment of the people who kept schools closed in part of the country, specifically Democratic lawmakers in blue cities and teachers unions. They argue that, even though more COVID-related shutdowns are unlikely, the nation’s students would benefit enormously if those groups had less power over how schools are run. Many say the best way to achieve that goal is through increasing access to school choice, which allows parents to send their kids to schools outside the public school system.

Those on the left, however, argue that the significant drop in test scores shows just how valuable public education really is. They argue that the test scores demonstrate the need for a major increase in funding for public education so schools have the resources and staff to help struggling students make up lost ground, especially for schools that were already struggling before the pandemic.

But others argue that it would be a mistake to make any changes to education plans based on these, or any, test results. They say standardized tests aren’t an actual measure of learning and, at best, provide a single data point that must be considered alongside a long list of other factors that determine student success. There’s also concern that some of the things children most desperately need from their schools — including emotional support, social development and basic services like free meals — might suffer if too much focus is directed at improving test scores.

What’s next

The data released last week was a general overview of results for 9-year-olds across the country. A more comprehensive look at student achievement, which includes state-by-state results and scores from 13-year-old students, is expected to be released in the next few months.


Public education needs a massive increase in funding

“Curing the many harms that school closures have imposed will take money—a lot of it. … A broad cure will also take a lot of imagination: to find new and better ways to deliver the many services that now run through physical presence specifically in schools.” — Meira Levinson and William Foss Thompson, The Atlantic

The bulk of resources and attention should go to kids who have struggled the most

“I would be surprised if this was a permanent shock. … The big worry is that this exacerbated inequality, and will the rebounds be unequal?” — Sean Reardon, education and inequality researcher, to Education Week

Parents need more opportunities to break from the public school system

“Outraged parents are stepping up to create the most meaningful accountability in a generation. Throughout the last several years, a record-breaking number of states passed new or expanded school-choice programs … offering an escape route for some children the next time they are held hostage by a system that fails to prioritize learning. ” — Walter Blanks Jr., National Review

Standardized tests won’t fix public education

“So what’s the one actual lesson of NAEP? … Well, here’s our regular dose of cold hard data. It hasn’t settled a thing. That’s the one actual lesson of NAEP; the dream of data-informed, data-driven decision making as a cure for everything that ails us is just a dream. Data can be useful for those who want to actually look at it. But data is not magical, and in education, it’s fruitless to imagine that data will settle our issues.” — Peter Greene, Forbes

improving test scores should be the last thing school leaders are concerned about

“Test scores lowered? Must be school closures! Must not have anything to do [with] a million people dying, 1500,000 children’s caregivers orphaning them, the grief children experienced in the largest pandemic in a century, the economic depravity of poverty in a [pandemic] … But really. Test scores up? Test scores down? Do they correspond to kids, their families and their future adult selves having access to safe housing, medical care, wealth, good food, water, happy lives? If not, who gives a s***?” — Steven W. Thrasher, social justice researcher

The scores show that public education should be defended at all costs

“I think schooling can be better, but I see public schooling as a kind of miracle, one of the highest expressions of a democratic society, and if we keep that spirit in mind, maybe we have some better discussions about what we should be doing next.” — John Warner, education policy writer

The system works and shouldn’t be changed because of a once-in-a-generation disruption

“Today's children know more than their parents. And both are outperforming their grandparents. … Long-term trends in American education are more upbeat than generally recognized. Acknowledging that reality could give teachers, parents and leaders the confidence needed to restore our schools as students return to the classroom this year.” — Paul E. Peterson and M. Danish Shakeel, USA Today

Educational opportunities need to be significantly expanded

“Neither states, school districts, or even families seemed driven to embrace the generational learning interventions — from dramatically lengthening the school year to implementing widespread one-to-one tutoring — that the scale of learning loss demands. As just one indicator, billions of dollars of federal COVID aid to schools remains unspent more than a year after it was first allocated. That may change in the wake of the NAEP release.” — Kevin Mahnken, The 74

The education system can’t heal without accountability for the people who caused the damage in the first place

“Choose your adage. Rewarding bad behavior gets you more of it; doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result is the definition of insanity; admitting you have a problem is the first step on the road to recovery. There is something absurd about trusting the people who caused a giant problem to fix it—with absolutely no reckoning with their part in it. And parents know it.” — Mary Katharine Ham, Daily Beast

We need to move past the unending argument over school closures

“If blaming someone is important, pick your favorite villain: Donald Trump, the CDC, the teachers unions, the news media, the reds or the blues. And when we’re done with that exercise, we can concentrate on what actually matters: How to avoid making the same mistakes again.” — Stephen L. Carter, Bloomberg

Public education is in serious danger unless liberals atone for their mistakes

“For decades, voters overwhelmingly trusted Democrats to make education policy. But that changed during the covid-19 pandemic. … Democrats need to own up to this, and work hard to fix it. Otherwise they risk leaving our nation and our schools in the hands of Republicans, whose activist vanguard deems public education a major internal threat to the country.” — Anya Kamenetz, Washington Post

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