Commentary: Public Education’s Alarming Reversal of Learning Trend

School Work
by Vince Bielski


Call it the big reset – downward – in public education.

The alarming plunge in academic performance during the pandemic was met with a significant drop in grading and graduation standards to ease the pressure on students struggling with remote learning. The hope was that hundreds of billions of dollars of emergency federal aid would enable schools to reverse the learning loss and restore the standards.

Four years later, the money is almost gone and students haven’t made up that lost academic ground, equaling more that a year of learning for disadvantaged kids. Driven by fears of a spike in dropout rates, especially among blacks and Latinos, many states and school districts are apparently leaving in place the lower standards that allow students to get good grades and graduate even though they have learned much less, particularly in math.

It’s as if many of the nation’s 50 million public school students have fallen backwards to a time before rigorous standards and accountability mattered very much.

“I’m getting concerned that, rather than continuing to do the hard work of addressing learning loss, schools will start to accept a new normal of lower standards,” said Amber Northern, who oversees research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a group that advocates for academic rigor in schools.

The question is—why did the windfall of federal funding do so little to help students catch up?

Northern and other researchers, state officials and school leaders interviewed for this article say many districts, facing staffing shortages and a spike in absenteeism, didn’t have the bandwidth to take on the hard work of helping students recover. But other districts, including those that don’t take academic rigor and test scores very seriously, share in the blame. They didn’t see learning loss as a top priority to tackle. It was easier to spend the money on pay rises for staff and upgrading buildings.

The learning loss debacle is the latest chapter in the decade-long decline in public schools. Achievement among black and Latino students on state tests was already dropping before COVID drove an exodus of families away from traditional public schools in search of a better education. Although by lowering standards and lifting the graduation rate districts have created the impression that they have bounced back, experts say that’s the wrong signal to send, creating complacency when urgency is needed.

“There is a lot of fatigue among educators in looking at this issue and how to deal with it,” says Karyn Lewis, a research director at assessment group NWEA. “But if we just accept this as the new normal, it means accepting achievement gaps that have widened exponentially. That is what’s most concerning.”

The Depths of Learning Loss

During COVID all types of students fell behind, partly because of chronic absenteeism of more than 25% that persisted even after they returned to in-person schooling. On average, students fell behind by the equivalent a half year’s worth of learning in math and a bit less in reading, while those in high poverty cities like St. Louis regressed three times that much, according to a joint Harvard-Stanford study. Reading scores in 2022-23 resembled those of the 1970s, before the era of school accountability.

What’s even more worrisome is that students have not been recovering. NWEA has examined the test scores of 6.7 million students since the fall of 2020 when all schools resorted to remote learning. Researchers found that after an initial drop off in performance when compared to pre-pandemic scores, the pace of learning returned to normal in 2021-22. That seemed like good news. But then learning slowed again the next year. This means students have been losing more ground even after returning to classrooms, lacking the skills to keep up with a curriculum that keeps advancing.

“It’s alarming to us that the academic growth in 2022-23 was actually more sluggish than the previous year,” said Lewis, co-author of the study. “The students are missing those building blocks in their skills that allow them to understand grade level content.”

The consequences for students with learning loss could be serious, affecting everything from lifetime earnings to incarceration rates. In a paper co-authored by Harvard’s Thomas Kane, researchers estimate that K-12 students on average face a drop in lifetime earnings of almost 2 percent, totaling $900 billion.

As learning declined, so did academic standards. More than 40 states eased requirements beginning with the class of 2020, according to a report in Education Week. Graduation tests and required courses were eliminated, and the number of credits needed to graduate was reduced. Schools also backed off on standard grading with credit-no credit scores, limits on low grades and more.

“I had a high schooler during COVID who was told that she just needed to show up to class and turn in assignments that were less intense than before,” said Douglas Harris, a Tulane professor who focuses on the economics of education. Open-book tests “made it easy to get good grades,” he said. “It required almost no effort to pass classes.”

A Gusher of Federal Funding

The federal government’s COVID rescue spending made what may be the single largest investment ever in public education. The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds provided almost $190 billion to schools, starting in March 2020 and ending this September. That amounts to an average annual funding increase of about 6% for each school district over four years, according to University of Chicago researchers.

Researchers say the problem is that districts were given almost free rein in how they spent the money with little accountability. For example, the final batch of ESSER funding approved in March 2021 only required that at least 20 percent of the funds be spent on learning loss. That percentage, set by Democrats in Congress, seems remarkably low given that researchers had revealed five months earlier, in November 2020, that a significant learning deficit, particularly in math, had already set in nationwide.

No one knows exactly how districts have been spending the money. State officials are supposed to oversee and report on their districts’ spending. But like other COVID spending programs that have been plagued by fraud and waste, ESSER reporting rules are vague. As many as 20 states either don’t know, or haven’t revealed, how their districts spent the money beyond the total amount deployed, says Marguerite Roza, director of Georgetown’s Edunomics Lab.

How much districts have deployed to address learning loss is also unclear, although they submitted plans to devote only about a quarter of the ESSER total to the problem, according to an analysis of 5,000 districts and charters by FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown. That’s about the same amount that they planned on spending on facility upgrades, from improving ventilation systems, a worthy repair during a pandemic, to new athletic fields and tracks, a low priority when students are falling behind in class.

Roza says that while reversing learning loss is a priority in some districts, in others it isn’t. Some school leaders simply aren’t worried about plunging test scores of their students, reflecting today’s dismissive view of high academic standards and accountability.

“It has become very fashionable to poo-poo state assessments and student outcomes as not being valuable,” Roza said. “Some districts might not even track how big a hit their students took. That’s the mood right now in some states.”

In states that do report how their districts used the money, almost half of it went to staffing, making it the largest category of spending, Roza says. Many planned to hired new staff, including math and reading specialists, to help students catch up. They also planned to give salary increases and retention bonuses to existing teachers.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called on districts to devote ESSER funding to pay raises for teachers to address staffing shortages in some parts of the country, a position also promoted by the National Education Association, the large teachers’ union that supports President Joe Biden’s re-election bid.

“If districts are doing across the board pay rises, including for senior teachers, I don’t know if students suffering learning loss are getting much value out of that,” Roza said.

Learning Loss Programs Flop

More concerning, experts say, is that many of the targeted efforts to address learning loss were ineffective. An assessment of districts in 10 states by CALDER, a group of education scholars at many universities, concluded that “recovery efforts often fell short of original expectations for program scale, intensity of treatment, and impact.”

A widespread problem is that most of the programs have been voluntary and held after school or in summer. Although this approach is easier for schools because classroom space is available and the sessions don’t disrupt the daily schedule, the downside is that most kids who need extra help don’t show up, reflecting the continuing crisis in classroom absenteeism.

Parents haven’t been much help. Most of them are not getting the message about the dive in test scores or just don’t care, according to a University of Southern California study. Parents focus on grades, and today’s inflated scores may give them the impression that their kids are doing fine and don’t need to attend recovery programs.

The low turnout in Connecticut’s Waterbury School District, with many of its 19,000 students from low-income families, is typical of programs across the country. Only 551 high school students took part in the Waterbury summer learning program.

“I consider this to be low,” says Tom Van Stone, a Waterbury school commissioner. “Our everyday learners are really suffering. I don’t know if they will ever catch up.”

Intensive Tutoring Gets Results

It is possible for students to recover at least some of what they lost. Experts have rallied around small group tutoring, in which instructors can customize lessons to target their students’ deficits, as a very effective approach. But for it to work, tutoring must be integrated into the school day so it’s taken seriously and occur at least three times a week. Hence the name – “high-dosage tutoring.”

A decade ago, public schools in Chicago, in collaboration with the University of Chicago Education Lab, rolled out high dosage tutoring for ninth grade math in 12 high schools. Some 2,000 students received small group tutoring in an elective class during the school day. Researchers found that they learned twice as much math over the course of a year compared with their peers who didn’t receive the extra help. The results were replicated the following year.

“We saw really impressive gains,” said Monica Bhatt, senior research director at the university lab. “It was very heartening.”

When the pandemic hit, the Chicago school district eagerly expanded the program to 200 schools and hire 800 tutors with the help of $50 million in ESSER funding.

For high-dosage tutoring to be effective, administrators and teachers must be willing to put in the hard work to change business as usual. The daily schedule must be revamped to accommodate a fleet of newly hired tutors and find classrooms to add hundreds of tutoring sessions. Teachers and tutors have to coordinate instruction and track progress of students.

Districts in Connecticut are making the effort, supported by $11.5 million in ESSER grants from the state. More than a third of the state’s 200 districts applied for funds to deploy high dosage tutoring, a sign that they will do what it takes to follow best practices, says Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer at the state education department. If the program lifts math performance, then the state plans to support other districts in adopting the model.

But so far, high dosage tutoring hasn’t caught on nationwide. In the wake of the pandemic, only 2 percent to 10 percent of students received it, said USC’s Amie Rapaport, adding that the number should be “significantly higher” given all the ESSER money districts received.

University of Chicago researchers say some schools lack the will to make the big changes that the practice requires. Inertia is a powerful force.

“When schools are faced with the possibility of change, they tend to do fewer of the hard things that will help students and more of the easier things that are likely to have fewer learning benefits for children,” wrote Chicago’s Jonathan Guryan and Jens Ludwig.

A New Normal in Academic Standards

With students far behind, districts have opted to keep academic standards depressed in what some experts fear could become a lasting change.

“COVID triggered the lowering of standards, but there have been other concerns like equity in education and mental health that make it hard for districts to go back to the pre-pandemic standards,” said Tulane’s Harris.

Researchers are sussing out the new normal in academic standards by comparing grades with state test scores over time. Before the pandemic in Washington, grades in a variety of subjects rose a little, along with a corresponding general increase in test scores, according to a CALDER study. It makes sense that the two measures would move more or less in tandem.

But after the pandemic in 2021-22, they diverged. While grades were slightly elevated over pre-pandemic levels, test scores were well below them. That means students had learned much less but were getting better grades. Other studies, including one in North Carolina, reveal a similar divergence, suggesting that the grading bar remains low in many states.

The high school graduation rate, a marker of a school’s performance, is even more startling. A falling rate is bad optics for district officials and a bad outcome for students. As with grades, the drop in test scores hasn’t harmed the graduation rate. In fact, it rose to an all-time high of nearly 88% in 2022, based on state reported figures from schools, says Harris, who will publish the finding in coming months.

Districts treat the graduation rate as a balancing act between the need to maintain challenging standards and the desire keep poorer performers in school where they still can learn. Had administrators not lowered graduation requirements, Harris says, there would have been a “precipitous drop” in the rate.

But lower standards may not be doing any favors to the at-risk students they are meant to help. To some degree, students’ performance will rise or decline based on the expectations set for them.

In a recent study of ninth graders in North Carolina, lower performing students exposed to easier grading responded by showing less effort in school. They had an increase in absences but no boost in grade point average, despite the fact that the lenient policy automatically provided such a lift. On the other hand, top performers had no jump in absences and a higher GPA, widening the achievement gap between the two groups.

It’s the opposite outcome that lowering standards is meant to achieve.

“I worry about this. You want students to be challenged,” Harris said. “If schools keep going down this route, there is a point where it’s no longer helping.”

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Vince Bielski is a writer for RealClearInvestigations. 






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